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

Thursday, May 31, 2007

I'm old enough now that 20 years ago doesn't seem so long -- I was an adult. So if 20 years ain't much, what about 20 years from now? I'll be almost 64, my son will be 24.

What will the world map look like? Culture? Technology? Politics?

What horrible popular music will the kids be listening to?

Will mainstream Mexican pop ever have been trendy in North America? I love Mexican music.

Only angels know the future, and whenever they make an announcement it's a big, big deal.

-- El Greco, The Annunciation, circa 1600

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Elihu Vedder, Memory, 1870

And then, late in the second act, Labelle began an aria ("Regard, O son, my flowing tears") that went through me like light through glass. The spun-silver phrases, the soft tides and surges of the orchestra, one exquisitely wrenching interval all poured in, weightless and shining. It went on and on, and was over before it started. "The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable," the writer Italo Calvino once remarked. I was out there, afloat. That's all I can really tell you about what happened that night. -- Steven Winn, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, “What happens to us when art connects to the unconscious,” via ArtsJournal.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Alex Ross made a list of favorite film scores, inspired by a question that Terry Teachout posted: “Is there any classic Hollywood comedy from the golden age with a great or even near-great musical score? In fact, is there any Hollywood comedy from any age with such a score?”

My first thought is -- Mendelssohn. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Erich Wolfgang Korngold
s soundtrack for the terrific 1935 film wove together several pieces by Mendelssohn. The question Terry posted reminds me that the golden age of film soundtrack was dominated by late Romantic and early modern style -- more Wagner than Debussy, some Stravinsky along the way. And some time in the 19th century, classical music lost the rhetoric of joy and gaiety and zest necessary for comedy. Did any of Beethoven’s many heirs attempt an updated Ode to Joy, or anything even close? Passages of Ives in his 3rd Symphony -- some of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker -- maybe some Rimsky-Korsakov -- I’m sure there are others. But the passages I am thinking of are associated either with children or with exotic locales. Some of Debussy’s La Mer thrills me with joy, but it is a private joy of reverie, not a public-spirited joy, not zesty. My assertion feels overstated -- so if you think I’m wrong, please do tell.

But there is one terrific composed-for-film comic soundtrack that I know of -- I posted on it a few years ago: The World of Henry Orient, a 1964 film directed by George Roy Hill, music by the wonderful Elmer Bernstein. It’s the story of the friendship of two 13-ish-year-old girls and their obsession with the title character, a concert pianist farcically played by Peter Sellers (pictured above).

Bernstein gives the girls a jaunty, off-kilter theme that charms thoroughly. Sellers and his paramours get pastiche-Rachmaninoff. A concerto-within-the-film is a mix of pastiche-Rachmaninoff for the piano soloist, with pastiche-modernist accompaniment from the orchestra -- totally silly and engaging and musically interesting.

It’s a wonderful soundtrack -- but I have never heard it away from the film, so I cannot vouch for its efficacy as stand-alone music. Bernstein was a master -- he’s on Mr. Teachout’s list for another movie, and he won beaucoups awards, including an Oscar, over his long career.

Most of my fave soundtracks are musicals; I’m not well-versed enough in film-listening to have many favorites.

But I will mention an undervalued aspect to film musicals: The dance sequences are orchestrated with wonderful variety and drama. Irving Berlin’s standard “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” lasts about a minute and a half, sung straight through; the dance sequence in
Follow the Fleet lasts an additional six minutes, all of them wonderful. The “Bottle Dance” in Fiddler on the Roof is the best orchestral klezmer I have ever heard in my life -- intense, gorgeous, dramatic; every classical appropriation of klezmer I have heard pales in comparison.

Two soundtracks are among my favorite albums of any sort: The Thomas Crown Affair (the first one), music by Michel Legrand -- a mix of lush pop, post-bop, frenetic contrapuntal faux-rock, virtuoso keyboard freneticisms. Two songs in the movie, by Legrand, not sung by the characters, one of them a standard, the gorgeous “Windmills of Your Mind.” I’ve never seen the movie, but I got the soundtrack from the library because I’m a Legrand fan.

And Black Orpheus, the Brazilian film that midwived the bossa nova movement, such gorgeous music. The scene in the movie when the village boys sing "Samba de Orfeo" is a transcendently beautiful religious moment. If the boys don't sing, the sun might not rise! Bonfa's samba lives up to the burden of the occasion -- joyous, passionate, unstoppable. The rest of the soundtrack, if you can believe it, lives up to
that. Bonfa's lovely "Morning of the Carnival"; several of Jobim's lovely, sophisticated compositions in sparkling, minimal arrangements; and the awesome street Carnival percussion and singing. It’s technically a musical, but not only are the songs gorgeous, but the “background music” is one of the main characters of the movie, and it’s tremendous.

And a third, from another movie I have not seen: Naked Lunch by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman. Gorgeous, and gorgeously paced between the orchestra, Coleman’s sax solos, and Coleman’s band.

I asked my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, a film music aficianado -- and a soundtrack composer himself, with two soundtracks to his name, including a film by Michael Moore -- for his list, and he obliged me. Here’s Jay:

Psycho – Herrmann
I know
Vertigo is supposed to be the masterpiece, but I prefer Psycho. He beautifully delineates the two distinct narrative halves.

Halloween – John Carpenter
Auteur +; add composer (honorable mention:
Assault on Precinct Thirteen)

Bullitt – Lalo Shifrin

Touch of Evil -- Mancini
Yes, it is comedy. “You don’t look like Mexican”

The Wrong Man
– Herrmann

Star Wars
(original 3) – Williams
I like this more and more. 12/8, baby.

Southern Comfort – Ry Cooder
Just for the opening, when the creapy, hissy woof-woof sound effect reveals itself to be the cranked amp tremolo before the guitar comes in.

Conrack – Williams

Once Upon A Time In The West – Morricone
The harmonica riff so prominently figured in the story and spot on. Notable for the perfectly placed silences. All the sound is crazy overdubbed and very much part of the “music.”

Terry may have launched this discussion in the cultural side of Blogville, but Digby’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” correspondent posted on the same topic a day or two earlier. The discussion in the comments section is wide-ranging, bringing in Ravi Shankar
’s music for Pather Panchali, which is gorgeous. The nod to Asia reminds me -- has anybody mentioned Toru Takemitsu? A wonderful composer, but I do not know his soundtrack work (though I have seen at least one of his films).

It’s a bottomless topic. Mass reproduction in the 20th-century transformed the arts in ways we have barely begun to comprehend. One telltale tidbit that’s hard to wrap one’s head around: The recent vogue -- which I wholeheartedly support -- for symphony orchestras recording soundtrack transcriptions often results in performances that aren’t as sharp as the originals. The reason: By and large, the movie studios’ orchestras have been the best in the world, and even if a “concert” orchestra were to boast of players as good, I would bet that they do not have as much rehearsal time. The modern orchestra grew to its present size parallel with the triumph of industrialism, and as if in honor of the orchestra’s provenance, the top musicians follow the market.

Monday, May 28, 2007

I was looking for a picture of a hurdy-gurdy, thinking about Western music's turn away from noisy instruments some centuries ago and toward "pure tones," when I found this fantastic collection of pictures of harps through the millennia -- I haven’t read the article yet. This picture is from a Pharaoh's tomb in the 2nd millennium BCE. The article has a picture of a hurdy-gurdy, a centuries-old "genre" painting, which, in art parlance, means a painting of poor people, which usually means, as is the case here, a painting in which the people are depicted looking undignified, unaware, un, un, un.

Music whelms me. I want to split the lark.

Emily Dickinson:

Split the Lark--and you'll find the Music--
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled--
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood--you shall find it patent--
Gush after Gush, reserved for you--
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

No! No! I don't doubt it! Come back, Bird!

* * *

I read the booklet notes to John Adams’s 9/11 piece On the Transmigration of Souls (which I posted on last night), an essay called “Memory Spaces.” Originally published in the Atlantic Monthly by composer David Schiff, it gives a much more generous listen to the piece than I gave it. (It has a horrible subtitle, which was probably written by Schiff’s editors: “John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls finds redemption in September 11.” Finding redemption in other people’s murder is reprehensible.)

I disagree with Schiff’s assessment, overall and in many particulars; I don’t hear that Adams is “building on” Ives in any cognitive way; it sounds more like bringing Ives into a technically unimpeachable personal pastiche to me. More basically, On the Transmigration of Souls does not expand our notion of what music can be with its melding of sound collage with a live performance -- not only is this a commonplace in pop music, but it has many precedents in the classical concert milieu.

But I wanted to bring Schiff’s essay to your attention because he fundamentally hears Adams’s quote of The Unanswered Question differently than I do, and his hearing is not only valid, but undoubtedly closer to Adams’s intention. The atrocity of 9/11, in Schiff’s hearing, did not inspire Adams to attempt an answer to Ives’s question, but merely to wonder at it again. I’ll give the disc another listen, and try to hear it this way, but I am doubtful that it will work for me dramatically. I fear that the technique and the pastiche are too self-assured to persuade me that this is Adams grappling with life-ultimate questions. Again, the impression sought feels more wished-for than achieved. In any case, quotation is a volatile business, and a composer cannot impose his or her intention onto someone’s hearing.

But the quotation works for Schiff, and I have to respect his experience.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Encountering Babel
John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
Osvaldo Golijov and others: Ayre

In 1906 Charles Ives wrote the original version of perhaps his best-loved piece, The Unanswered Question. Against a floating, calmly disqueting unresolved series of chords from a string section, a solo trumpet plays stately, unresolved melodic fragments of great beauty, which a chorus of flutes answers. By leaving the question not only unanswered, but also unverbalized, Ives leaves us to fill in our own question. “Why?” may be one. “Why existence? Why are we here? What are we doing here? How did we get here?” My questions -- in my life, and as I project them onto Ives’s wonderful piece -- revolve around these unanswerables.

Today I listened to John Adams’s 9/11 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls. Adams begins with voices speaking in fragments, naming the names of the 9/11 missing. Gradually an Ivesian texture of calmly unresolved chords emerges. Adams borrows from the rhythmically detached cloud-chords from the end of Ives’s 3rd Symphony as well, with a lovely floating piano. The way he puts together contemporary classical uses of fragmented speech with Ivesian orchestration is masterful.

And then a few minutes into it, Adams brings in a solo trumpet, strongly reminiscent of The Unanswered Question.

And it pisses me off.

The atrocity of September 11. What a tangle of inarticulable emotions. Grief, horror, anger, fear. Followed by -- horror at America’s response. And then -- the realization that yes, I’m an American, the murder of Americans in New York and Washington affects me more deeply than Shock and Awe in Iraq. My knees don’t shake at the mass murder of Iraqis by the American government. My knees do shake at the mass murder of Americans by Islamic terrorists. It’s closer -- I’ve been to New York, close friends live in New York, I love New York in a personal way, not as part of an abstract love for humanity in general.

Mass murder was not the answer I was looking for when Ives asked his question. Political intractability, the human lust for destruction and murder -- I had never associated these with Ives’s question. “Why is there evil in the world?” was not the question that came to mind when listening to Ives’s piece, and if that is what Adams intends with his allusion to The Unanswered Question, it is a gross reduction of what Ives was about.

I cursed John Adams. I cursed him, inarticulately grasping at what he was provoking in me, listening to his piece.

Because, his piece says, the answer to Ives’s question is . . . Evil. The fundamental nature of life is evil. The human heart is evil.

And, John Adams be cursed, maybe he’s right.

He masterfully makes the case. He’s a masterful musician. He corrals those Ivesian forces and techniques with tremendous skill, and weaves in contemporary sound collage expertly and pointedly.

Adams’s expertise perverts Ives’s idealism in an utterly contemporary way -- this is the Ives of George W. Bush, the evil heart of American faux-idealism. Adams’s music does not endorse Bush’s perversion of American idealism; he simply lays it bare. Ivesian/Emersonian idealism = evil; democracy = murder. This is the world of those ideological twins Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.

This is the world-of-thought that Adams’s juxtaposition of reciting the names of persons missing from 9/11 with Ivesian poetry and an allusion to The Unanswered Question threw me into.

And then Adams’s piece moved on again. A choir sang quotes from testimony of the loved ones of the missing. Singing in a bland, flat, 20th-century choral style. And the line comes, “I am so full of grief.” And tears come to the edge of my eyes. And I think, yes, Grief, that is the answer to this particular question, this riddle of how to respond to the atrocity of September 11, 2001. To the whole tangle of unspeakable emotions at the event itself and the events that followed and are still following. I am so full of grief. The bland flatness of the music suits the text. Sorrow sorrow sorrow -- sorrow drained of drama. It almost makes the specificity of the Ives allusion OK for me.

But, unfortunately, Adams doesn’t stop there. He goes on with more quotes from loved ones of the missing, more specific and personal images of particular people, and the piece goes on, and it builds to a horror of a climax, borrowing from the mood-repertoire of Hollywood horror master Bernard Herrmann. I had been listening to compilations of Hollywood scores before putting on Adams’s piece, and Adams seemed up to Herrmann’s skills as well as Ives’s.

The piece ends with spoken text. “I love you.”

And that, apparently, is Adams’s answer to the Ives’s question. (I have not read the booklet notes beyond the credits, which I read after listening. The credits state that Adams used The Unanswered Question with the permission of Ives’s publisher -- and it’s depressing that the work is still under copyright, 100 years after it was written and more than 50 years after the composer’s death.)

Adams’s “love” doesn’t convince. The music is weak here. By leaving his conclusion spoken rather than sung, it is as though he has conceded that he has no musical rhetoric for love. And that’s a pity.

Furthermore, the speaker
’s tone is weak and vague. Not the power of love -- it sounds like the “I love you” that someone says when their beloved has just announced that they are leaving -- a pathetic love that hopes to confer or remind the beloved of an obligation to return the love. This sentiment strikes me as wrong for the context -- the beloved did not leave, the beloved did not renege on a promise of love returned, the beloved was horribly taken away.

grief was convincing. And his grief included love. Because without love, there is no grief. “Love” as a conclusion seemed didactic -- more wished for than felt. Dramatically wrong. Bernard Herrmann wouldn’t have made the mistake.

The unconvincingness, dramatic wrongness, and musical abdication of Adams’s concluding “love” called to mind Blake’s critique of Paradise Lost: “Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell.” Same is true of Adams in this piece -- except grief is not hell. Angels weep too.

I applaud Adams for the seriousness of his ambition and intention as well as his deep musical skill. But his piece left me in a bad mood. What he did with Ives profoundly alters Ives’s intention and reduces Ives’s wide river of thought into a narrow, if powerful, cataract. And Adams’s musical skill, expert though it is, did not sufficiently convey his ideological hope in this piece. He should have stuck with grief.

* * *

I’ve been listening to Ayre, the recent suite for voice and small ensemble. The CD lists Osvaldo Golijov as the composer, but he is one of four or five for the suite -- the main one, and the leader, but not the sole one. That the nominal composer has opened the piece up to include contributions from his collaborators is one of many interesting facets to Ayre.

Ayre is essentially a world-music fusion album, blending klezmer, Sephardic, Arabic, classical European, and techno styles, sometimes within one movement, more often discretely. But it’s a world-fusion album from a classical milieu and point of view, which brings strengths as well as weaknesses to the table.

The chief strength of the classical milieu as represented here can be summed up with one name: Dawn Upshaw. What a vocalist! As lovely as anybody could desire from a soprano on the trad. classical numbers, and with a fierce, harsh timbre on the fusion-y bits.

The piece was commissioned specifically for her and dedicated to her. And the dedication is worth it. It’s hard to imagine anybody else pulling the piece off.

The biggest weakness is the thinner, weaker ensemble texture that a notated score provides when compared to a semi-improvising working band playing in the small-band dance-related styles sometimes on exhibit here. Passages in the suite’s first and last movements in particular have the feel of semi-improvisation, but with a sense of tentativeness in places when compared to, say, semi-improvised passages by the Klezmatics or a master Arabic musician like the late, great Um Kalthoum.

The thinner texture goes beyond the semi-improvised-sounding passages (which may or may not have been semi-improvised). Many working bands have a stronger, more joyous sense of groove than the band Golijov put together (but which, tellingly, he did not play with). Much of Ayre is not groove-oriented, but the passages that are leave me hankering for a stronger sense of ensemble accenting, ensemble attack and phrasing, than this group manages. Former Klezmatics clarinetist David Krakauer understands groove, and putting him high in the mix almost carries the day for
Golijov’s band, but it still does not quite sound like a working band to me.

Another classical weakness may not make any sense to anybody else, but I felt a 20th-century classical taste for “the gesture” in Ayre, particularly in the pacing between the first few movements. For the first third of the suite Golijov alternates lyrical quiet movements with bracing dissonant ones. The dramatic gesturing of the juxtapositions feels like show-boating to me -- not in a good way.

Which brings me to the composing. I don’t have a lot to say. It’s a nice world-fusion record with a fantastic lead singer. Some of the writing is very beautiful, some of it exciting, none of it bad but some of it only OK. It having been commissioned for a vocalist, unsurprisingly it is a collection of songs. And in the setting of songs, Golijov shows a hesitancy that interestingly parallels Adams’s.

None of the texts are from English: Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews), Arabic, Sardinian, Hebrew, Spanish. Fine -- nothing wrong with that -- it’s a world-fusion record, after all. But
a poem by the contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is translated into English. Evidently, Golijov wanted his primarily Anglophonic audience to connect with this particular text.

And he didn’t set it. It’s spoken. Track number 8, “composed” by Osvaldo Golijov, consists of Dawn Upshaw reciting an excerpt from an Arabic poem that has been translated into English. When Golijov wants to convey a text with maximum effectiveness, he leaves his music out of it, much as the conclusion to On the Transmigration of Souls. This lack of faith in the composer’s side of songwriting disappoints and troubles me. (An annoying classical tic to the recording: Even though Ayre contains overdubs and electronic percussion and sound-samples, they have mixed some of the dynamics “naturalistically,” with the result that the spoken track is too quiet to hear when listening to the record as a whole at a comfortable volume.)

I mentioned that the record reflects the work of four or five composers, but only Golijov and one other receive credit. The other named composer is Oscar-winning soundtrack composer Gustavo Santoalalla, who is credited with writing (and playing) a nice guitar solo which functions as the introduction to one of the prettiest lyrical numbers, as well as with writing a brief song of no particular distinction. The two or three unnamed composers include Upshaw, who recited the key text (and I’m assuming that Golijov did not notate her speech); hyper-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, who “designed and performed the hyper-accordian effects,” making his instrument sound like a cross between an accordian and a ‘70s prog-rock synthesizer on an extended cadenza to open one number; and Jeremy Flower, credited with “sound design & laptop.” “Designing” sound and effects seems like composition, or at least arranging -- however they want to dole out the credits is fine with me. I do think it is healthy for a composer to receive input from his band -- and to credit them as Golijov has done.

Golijov intends his cross-cultural fusion as an effort in the search for world -- especially Middle Eastern -- peace. It may or may not be gutsy for a Jewish composer to highlight the work of a poet associated with the Palestinian independence movement. But I wish Golijov would have left world peace out of it. Make music for the sake of beautiful or exciting music. If Arabic music inspires you, go for it. (The last movement feels like a western dream soundtrack of North Africa, and it’s gorgeous -- one of the suite’s highlights.) Sticking a klezmer-style clarinet (played by klezmer clarinet star Krakauer) on top of an Egyptian-style string passage makes me shrug, at least as it happens on one of the movements here.

There’s been a lot of interesting world-fusion music in recent years. Projects which overlap with Golijov’s geographical territory include work by the Spanish studio group Radio Tarifa, whose 1997 album Temporal includes traditional flamenco and Sephardic tunes as well as a piece of 12th-century French processional music. Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars recorded with a brass band from Cairo with thrilling results on Brotherhood of Brass. Recent work of the Klezmatics (of whom London is a member) reflects North African as well as klezmer influence, and rock and pop and Caribbean influence too, and with a skill at mating words to music that neither Golijov nor Adams comes close to matching on these albums.

On the classical side of the record store, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has produced some stunningly beautiful music, and I love Kronos Quartet’s encounter with the music of Mexico on their 2002 CD Nuevo, much of which was arranged by Golijov and which was produced by Golijov’s credited co-composer on Ayre, Gustavo Santaolalla.

All of these projects have been generated by the players. Kronos and Ma commissioned composers and arrangers; the Klezmatics and Radio Tarifa composed and/or arranged their own music. It is unclear whether Golijov’s piece was generated by a performer, but it was commissioned for Dawn Upshaw. Golijov’s is the least convincing as a gesture for world peace (and London’s is as explicit in its shared, stated intention), but Upshaw is phenomenal and some of the music is gorgeous, and none of it is merely dull. I will be listening to it with keenness.

* * *

Regarding the images: John Adams used a similar photo of the ruins of the World Trade Center for the inside booklet cover of On the Transmigration of Souls. I found this photo uncredited on the web. The booklet for Adams’s CD reminded me of the 1563 painting Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel the Elder, a different version of which Frank London used for the cover of Brotherhood of Brass.

By juxtaposing the images, I do not mean to suggest that the murder of almost 3,000 Americans on that horrible day five and a half years ago was the result of the wrath of God, or that it was punishment for overweening human ambition. On the Transmigration of Souls does not allude to Babel, but Golijov, Frank London, Yo Yo Ma, and others seem to be trying to cure the ills that have come from the confusion of tongues. Here's hoping.

Now it is Memorial Day, a day in honor of warriors who have fallen in battle. Disasters of war. Inarticulable emotions -- grief, anger, horror. Unanswered questions.

* * *

UPDATE, next day: I read the booklet notes to Adams’s piece, an essay called “Memory Spaces.” Originally published in the Atlantic Monthly by composer David Schiff, it gives a much more generous listen to the piece than I gave it. (It has a horrible subtitle, which was probably written by Schiff’s editors: “John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls finds redemption in September 11.” Finding redemption in other people’s murder is reprehensible.)

I disagree with Schiff’s assessment, overall and in many particulars; I don’t hear that Adams is “building on” Ives in any cognitive way; it sounds more like bringing Ives into a technically unimpeachable personal pastiche to me. More basically, On the Transmigration of Souls does not expand our notion of what music can be with its melding of sound collage with a live performance -- not only is this a commonplace in pop music, but it has many precedents in the classical concert milieu.

But I wanted to bring Schiff’s essay to your attention because he fundamentally hears Adams’s quote of The Unanswered Question differently than I do, and his hearing is not only valid, but undoubtedly closer to Adams’s intention. The atrocity of 9/11, in Schiff’s hearing, did not inspire Adams to attempt an answer to Ives’s question, but merely to wonder at it again. I’ll give the disc another listen, and try to hear it this way, but I am doubtful that it will work for me dramatically. I fear that the technique and the pastiche are too self-assured to persuade me that this is Adams grappling with life-ultimate questions. Again, the impression sought feels more wished-for than achieved. In any case, quotation is a volatile business, and a composer cannot impose his or her intention onto someone’s hearing.

But the quotation works for Schiff, and I have to respect his experience.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The kid asked me why walking catfish can walk, and I thought of evolution, the random mutation of genetic matter, some of which sticks. And how each mutation could be thought of as a Lucretian swerve. And how this notion of “swerve” calls to mind the etymology of “universe,” which is “one turn,” though apparently in the sense of “turn into one.” The Big Bang posits that the Universe is a turn away from one-ness, and evolution and the Lucretian swerve suggest that maybe the Big Bang could be thought of as the Big Unraveling propelled by the Primal Swerve, that the original one-ness turned within itself, and came undone. Rockers will be pleased to know that scientists now believe that the Big Bang sounded like the deep hum of a giant stack of turned-on amplifiers. But nobody will ever know for sure. Human vanity lazily assumes that rational inquiry will solve all riddles. No way. Primal questions are beyond us. Take
em on faith or not at all.

You can Lucretius' poem, On the Nature of the Things,here. I’ve read only tiny bits of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

the gooey-ness of language --

laying goo-idge --

languid layngooage --

It sounds -- it sounds so -- . . .

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"For even that vulgar and tavern musick which makes one man merry another mad strikes in me a deep fit of devotion and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers; it is a hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world." -- Sir Thomas Browne (1605 - 1682), quoted in Music Ho! by Constant Lambert, 1934

I didn't watch American Idol tonight. I'm on the west coast. I read who won on the web an hour before it was broadcast here. Its chief interest for me lies in its sporting quality -- who's up, who's down, who's winning, who's losing. The people voting are inspired to vote. The drama lies in the real-time reactions of the judges to the singers' performances. Simon gets all the press but his rudeness is pretty dull and predictable, and I'm sure he's happy to be boo-ed all the way to the bank. Randy and Paula are more attractive. But taking pleasure in watching Simon rip into the live psyches of the performers really does call to mind Glenn Gould's comment that live performance is a gladiatorial blood sport.

And when I don't like the songs, I remember that even a bad song is a hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world.

And Paula was right -- they're all winners!

-- Thomas Hart Benton, Doing the Twist, 1960
-- Romare Bearden, Out Chorus, 1979 - 1980
-- William H. Johnson, Street Musicians, 1940

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Ever since the hospital up the hill built a new wing, our house hasn’t gotten the Fox network, and we don’t have cable. So I’ve missed American Idol.

But Idolmania swept me up, and so tonight I called my beloved spouse’s old friend Karen and invited my whole family to her house for dinner -- with us bringing dinner. Karen had already eaten but she wouldn’t mind dessert, and so I cooked, we packed up, stopped at the corner store for ice cream, and were on our way.

The show is dull. No surprise there -- it was what I expected, more or less. But it was nice to see our friend, and her cats, and the kid was happy to go on an outing and he loves our friend too.

Blake is sweet and charming, and his beat-boxing shows some rhythmic skill and flair but as a singer he’s strictly OK.

Jordin, who’s 17, is the more poised of the pair (Blake’s 26 or thereabouts), and she has powerful diva pipes equally comfy in R & B or country -- both diva genres.

I wasn’t swayed one way or the other. Then the last song came, the first time that they would both sing the same song, which was the winner of the American Idol songwriting contest, written by two shlubby men with their shirts untucked. (I’m such a square! Tuck your shirts in!) As people predicted, the winning song was an uplifting power ballad, called “This Is My Now.”

As Blake sang it, strictly OK, monochromatic but otherwise fine if you don’t mind bland, I thought, damn, bland song, I should have entered the context, maybe my lilting waltz with the free-improv instrumental bridge, “Worms in the Sky (a/k/a Vitreous Floaters).”

Yeah, right. As disaffected Elizabethan youth used to say, “Whate’er, sirrah.”

But then Jordin sang it and . . . something happened. She sang it with power and nuance.

And it’s a really good song.

And it’s about the show. About winning the show. About the moment of triumph, and also about living in the moment, about stepping into one’s stardom, however defined, what every great star knows, “This is my now” -- mine, not that other person’s, as Harold Bloom said about great poets, that they know when their Now is.

And at the very end of the song Jordin’s voice caught, and she teared up, and it was magnificent. She was singing about what we were seeing in front of our eyes, the ineluctable now-ness of now, and in particular this her individual Now, and her intense emotionality made the Now unimaginably individualized and simultaneously universal, the grandeur of her stardom reflecting the grandeur of existence like a (William) Blakean grain of sand, like a fractal. “That was pretty awesome,” the hitherto unimpressed Karen said.

Regardless of how America votes, tonight, Jordin was an inspired singer -- a star. This is her Now.

(And, trying to look up info on the song, I see that designing the song to comment on the contest was part of the plan all along. Well done!)

Monday, May 21, 2007

how a song commissioned by Czar Nicholas I played a significant role in the political music of Pete Seeger and Irving Berlin.

In Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, Astrov, the environmentalist doctor, passes time playing guitar. I always wondered about that detail, knowing of no other association between Russia and guitars.

A few weeks ago on a whim, never having seen or heard of it before, I picked up a used copy of Oleg Timofeyev’s 1998 CD The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar. Timofeyev resurrects then-popular but subsequently forgotten 19th century hits for the Russian seven-string guitar -- lovely stuff for an instrument even mellower and sweeter than the 6-string guitar. Timofeyev
’s booklet notes charm with affectionately presented information. The guitar was a bourgeois instrument, and most of its composers were amateurs. The peasants played balalaikas.

Vasily Stepanovich Sarenko, one of the featured composers, was a medical doctor and amateur guitarist. Timofeyev quotes from a memoir by one of his patients.

One night my wife became seriously ill. I rushed to the first available doctor, and found myself at the place of V. S. Sarenko. His servant led me to the bedroom, where I saw the doctor sitting on his bed and playing guitar.

He nodded in the direction of an armchair near him and continued playing.

-- Doctor, -- said I -- I am sorry.

-- Just a moment, -- he interrupted, -- now: listen . . . it's growing . . .

-- Pardon me, it is very nice, but . . .

-- Only one more minute, -- he interrupted. -- Listen, what follows. Great music, huh?

-- Very excellent, -- I said, -- however . . .

-- And here comes the finale . . . Listen, listen . . .

Thus he tortured me for about half an hour, before we managed to get on the road. I feel responsible to add that he helped my wife very much, and played better than anything I had ever heard . . .

One of the stodgier pieces on the collection is a period guitar transcription of “God Save the Czar,” the 1833 composition by Alexis Lvov and Czarist Russia’s national anthem. Stodgy -- but fertile.

The opening phrase is strongly reminiscent of the opening phrase of the Civil Rights hymn “We Shall Overcome.” And the last phrase prefigures almost note-for-note the melody of the closing phrase of Irving Berlin’s great American anthem, which ends, “God bless America, my home sweet home.”

Irving Berlin was a child of Czarist Russia whose first memory was of seeing his home burned down during a pogrom. He originally wrote “God Bless America” in 1918, the year after the overthrow of the Czarist regime by the Communists, of whom Berlin was no fan. What can this quotation of Czariana mean in a heartfelt patriotic hymn to his adopted country, in the wake of the execution of the last Czar, by people Berlin despised? He’s on record as being anti-Communist, and presumably he was no fan of the pogrom-condoning Czars either, but when he reached into the melodic well for a patriotic hymn, he borrowed from a recently deposed one from his dangerous childhood.

Berlin was 5 when his family emigrated to the United States. Three years later his father died. Berlin became a street kid in New York City at age 13, scraping by, selling newspapers, busking, waiting tables. John Howard Payne’s 19th century hit Home, Sweet Home may have had particular meaning to Berlin -- enough that the last line of one of his most famous songs quotes the title.

And the tune he borrowed to set that borrowed line of verse recalled his childhood home. According to this translation, the lyric that tracks the tune (minus two syllables) for “God bless America, my home sweet home,” sings, “God save the Czar! God save the Czar!”

It is moving to imagine Berlin's relationship with the tune -- in an impossibly sorrowful way -- the terror of the pogrom intermixed with longing for childhood / home -- when his father was alive and (as far as I know) protecting him. But at the time he wrote the song Berlin did have a home, a sweet home -- America. The melody’s allusion to the past mingles with the present of the song in a dense emotional tangle. In a democracy loyalty to country is not loyalty to monarch. God bless America.

Berlin’s melodic borrowings didn’t stop at the border of Czarist Russia, and they didn't all conjure his childhood. As revealed by the research of my friend Jody Rosen, on an album he curated of 100-year-old Jewish vaudeville numbers, Jewface, Berlin also stole from the tune, “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band.” The melody for his song’s opening line, “God bless America,” tracks, note for note, this phrase from the other song: “Abie then starts to play.” Berlin started his career writing ethnically stereotyped comedic songs, at first lyrics, and then lyrics and music, mocking Jews and Italians and a variety of ethnic minorities. His career had changed with the fashions of the times, and by the time he wrote
“God Bless America” he had been hugely successful for most of a decade. By alluding to a “Hebe” song with his patriotic melody, he states his loyalty to the original American milieu in which he became a rich man -- “God bless America.”

The bottomless mystery of song -- stitching together bits of what I can only imagine was at best a wildly ambivalent nostalgia for childhood, with a famous swatch of 19th century pop poetry, and early 20th century rough-and-rude vaudeville, Berlin came up with a perennial. His tune swells with pride for most singers and listeners (and bores and annoys a huge percentage of others), but even before I knew the sub-tunes and their subtexts, I heard a humble hesitancy in the melody, a pungent melancholy whose particularities can never be adequately described. The melody
’s allusions bespeak a dark path to the singer’s present love of country.

If you’re interested in a tasty slice of the farflung social and musical history of the guitar, you should check out Timofeyev’s disc of music he has unearthed. And there is a Velveeta-y keyboard arrangement of “God Save the Czar” on the Web, if you
’re interested.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

most times i go through life not seeing, absorbed in my own feeling thinking, the watery colors of my pre-occupations washing out the visible world, when there it is in all of its thisness and hereness -- this here world --

-- Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939

Thursday, May 17, 2007

My brother recently sent me journals I kept in high school which he found at our mother's house and which I had forgotten about. I haven't looked at them yet. I may not for a long time.

In 9th grade I kept a journal. It became a fetish object in my nerdy social circle. Friends would write in it for a day. Other friends would surreptitiously take it and write, "Ha ha, I'm writing in your journal!" At the end of the year, I burned it -- didn't want to be too attached. I never regretted it, until today, thinking about it.

In my 20s and 30s at different times I kept private journals, unlike my 9th grade journal, and unlike this public internet diary with a guest book at the bottom of each entry for anybody to chime in. (And please do chime if you feel like chiming.) I haven't looked at those journals for a while either. I do remember one journal entry which served as fodder for two or three songs -- about turmoil at my job at that time. One song began, "I say god damn the hypocrites." Another song began, "My heart is full with bricks and stones."

I wouldn't have kept track, but the blogger program tells me when I log in. This is blog post number 1,000. When I started doing this in January 2004, my dad was alive and my son was a couple of days shy of turning one year old. Other than my dad having died and my son growing up, the biggest change in my life since starting the blog has been the blog itself. Sometimes it feels like a sick addiction, but mostly it just feels like . . . keeping a journal. With pictures and a comments function. And hyperlinks. In public. If I look at old posts, the ones I am gladdest to have written are the ones that record my domestic life. But I'm glad to have written most of the others as well. And I'm really glad to have met, at least internetally, a number of interesting and swell people, many of whom I've become terribly fond of.


-- Juan Gris, Le Journal, 1916

[this started out as a post about writing; hence the image of an ancient palimpsest. ]

An email from my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, on an early poptimist volley (and I do love that song he mentions):

Picked up the Best of Eric Carmen CD at Malcolm's school's flea
market. "All By Myself," based on Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto, is
really a good song. The rest I am taking in, trying to listen past
the the production.

In the liner notes, David Wild, ID'd as Music Editor for Rolling Stone,
in a one sentence prologue to his track by track analysis
entitled "Eric Carmen: A Fan's Notes," begins, "Ladies and
gentlemen, pop is not a dirty word." It's dated 1988.

(I don't know how this looks in your browser, but on the preview screen, the text obliterates part of the image, palimpsestically.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

ones that got away.

from decades of browsing . . .

1. In a used bookstore in Chicago, many years ago, I found a Selected Poems by Louis Ginsberg, Allen's father, inscribed to Nelson Algren, something to the effect of, "Dear Nelson, My father wanted you to have this. Give me a call next time you're in New York. Yours sincerely, Allen." It wasn't in the "rare" books, just regular, just a regular used book. I thought about it, was close to broke (as usual at the time), and didn't buy it. Went back a couple days later, set on buying it, it was gone.

2. The first time my beloved spouse and I saw the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, she was selling a cheap EP CD for five bucks Canadian, no cover, no picture, just a CD in a case with her name on it. She had not yet revealed herself as the astounding musician she is, and I picked it up and thought about it, but didn't buy it. Now it's long gone.

3. Once at a "new music" record store I came across an illegal 2-disc bootleg of La Monte Young recordings, including some of his Well-Tuned Piano and some of his astonishingly fierce free-jazz saxophone improvisations with equally terrific drumming by Angus Maclise, and a mind-settling drone being played by his band, perhaps John Cale (the CD lacked credits). I listened at the listening station, and didn't much like the theater pieces from the early '60s, consisting of dragging chairs across amplified floors and visually interesting but sonically grating activities like that, but I loved the saxophone and piano playing. I hesitated at the 35 dollar price tag. When I went back to look at it again, and test my resolve not to spend the money, it was gone and hasn't been back.

4. A beautiful copy of an 1890s edition of Greek Studies by Walter Pater, being sold for two bucks at a sale at the Newberry Library in Chicago. I had no money in my pocket. Went back the next day, it was gone.

Collecting -- it's a strange activity, like birding. At least, I console myself, I saw these things and held them in my hands; I consumed bits of them. Deciding not to buy them becomes a story I can tell.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The last couple of days, songs of mine have been going through my head, one from a few years ago, and one from 1990 or '91, from my last year in Chicago. And then I heard "Tangled Up in Blue" in a cafe yesterday, and was put in my place! Not in a bad way -- I may never write a song as good as "Tangled," but few do. Or, rather, lots of songs may be as good in their way, but "Tangled" is unique in its lyrical breadth.

Went home and put on the only Dylan that I have on disc, Self-Portrait, my favorite Dylan album, easily. Maybe no masterpiece songs, like on his mid-60s and mid-70s peaks, but no super-annoying songs either, and great performances, and great covers, and I love the bad-assed-ness of the conceit, that Bob at his most-obviously masked, switching masks from song to song, his two styles duetting with each other on a single song (country crooner Bob duetting with folky raspy Bob on a fantastic cover of "The Boxer") -- that the Self Portrait is a collection of masks that don't fit together. The only album that remotely reminds me of it is The Great Rock-n-Roll Swindle.

Songs. I LOVE SONGS. I want to shout it out. I LOVE SONGS. Like the Psalms say, Make a Joyful Noise.

Dylan's presence looms large in the 40th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, getting an interview from The Man himself, founder and publisher Jann Wenner. And it's a great interview -- hilarious to see Wenner vainly trying to match wits with Dylan, and being arrogant and famous enough to call bullshit on Dylan when Dylan's being evasive, only he isn't nearly quick enough -- and who would be? -- to trap the master evader.

Bob, come on.

No, you come on.

Then, a little later . . .

What can I do to get you to take this seriously?

I'm taking it seriously.

You're not.

Of course I am. You're the one who's here to be celebrated. Forty years . . . forty years with a magazine that obviously now has intellectual recognition. Did you ever think that would happen when you started?

I was taking it seriously.

Look how far you've come. You're the one to be interviewed. I want to know just as much from you as you want to know from me.

When they cut the comedy, Dylan has some acutely perceptive and touchingly generous things to say about his peers.

What do you think of Neil Young?

Neil is very sincere, if nothing else. He's sincere, and he's got a God-given talent, with that voice of his, and the melodic strain that runs through absolutely everything he does. He could be at his most thrashy, but it's still going to be elevated by some melody. Neil's the only one who does that. There's nobody in his category.

Tell me about George Harrison.

George got stuck with being the Beatle that had to fight to get songs on records because of Lennon and McCartney. Well, who wouldn't get stuck? If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he'd have been probably just as big as anybody. George had an uncanny ability to just play chords that didn't seem to be connected in any kind of way and come up with a melody and a song. I don't know anybody else who could do that, either. . . .

What was your relationship with John Lennon like? Somewhat competitive?

Yeah. Only to a certain extent, but not really. Him and McCartney both, really, they were fantastic singers. Lennon, to this day, it's hard to find a better singer than Lennon was, or than McCartney was and still is. I'm in awe of McCartney. He's about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all. And he's never let up. He's got the gift for melody, he's got the rhythm, he can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody, and he can sing a ballad as good as anybody. And his melodies are effortless, that's what you have to be in awe of. . . . [Ellipses in original.] He's just so damn effortless. I just wish he'd quit [laughs]. Everything that comes out of his mouth is just framed in melody.

Maybe now with Dylan's endorsement, people will see Chaos and Creation in the Backyard as the return-to-form wonder that it is. I'm still baffled by the indifference that record received.

And Bob is right. Neil's a great guitarist, but his great secret is his gift as a melodist. He's right about the Beatles too.

And here we are, 40 years later, still mooning over Dylan and Beatles. As if subsequent rock music is just a footnote to the Beatles and Dylan.

It isn't. Madonna and Chuck D -- two notable absences from Rolling Stone's parade of white guys (20 interviews in their big anniversary issue, 18 white men, 2 white women) -- aren't particularly prefigured by Dylan and the Beatles -- or are they? In a way, Madonna and Chuck D represent the split between Dylan as verbal master and Dylan as shape-shifting persona maven. With their own unique spins.

Simon Reynolds* waxed excellent on the decline of musical intensity in rock in a recent interview by k-punk. I think he's right -- music appears to have a less intense place in the culture than it once did. Simon attributes this to a lack of edginess in rock, but the lack of edginess may be a symptom, not a cause.

Edginess has been subsumed into the mainstream. Nothing is more corporate than edginess, nothing more mom-and-dad play-it-safe play-your-prescribed-role fit-into-the-pre-existing-narrative than going for being "edgy." Maybe mom and dad won't completely approve of the tattoos or the unorthodox piercings -- but maybe they have them themselves; in any case, mom and dad will understand the career move behind it. Even if the career is really unlikely to pan out. Extravagant visual accoutrements on one's body won't be a barrier to employment any more. It's safe to come out of the freak-cave. Anybody can be freaky now.

After our Mother's Day brunch Sunday my spouse and our kid and I walked downtown to go to the art museum. We admired the old buildings along the way, and we took a pedestrian bridge we'd gone under hundreds of times without noticing before. A very nice walk.

Punctuated by a sweet handmade sign in a bank window rooting on Blake, Seattle-land's local American Idol finalist. Yea, Go Blake, Seattle's American Idol! As if he were a sports team.

I've seen some of his clips on the internet (the station that broadcasts the show does not reach our house since a hospital expanded several blocks away), and I've enjoyed all of the would-be Idols, to one degree or another. My 50-something African American co-worker is partial to Jordin -- "that girl has a beautiful voice!" -- but nobody has caught me. But in a recent "historical" issue of one of the glossy mags -- I think it was Life but it might have been Time -- the decade that I recently saw dubbed "the ohs" (by SFJ writing in the New Yorker) was represented culturally by American Idol and another reality show.

A friend recently sent me a CD-R of a variety of stuff, mostly current indie bands, and he chose well in that I like all the songs -- but nothing really grabs me. The songs are fine, but not especially compelling. The disintensification of music. Music made out of a compulsion to make music, but not to make anything particularly distinctive or unique.

The iPod is the perfect tool for the dis-intensified age. That brilliant ad campaign, successfully glamorizing the individualized, cut-off, isolated consumption of music, and conferring on the isolated status of the earphone listener an image of passion and abandon. Whereas the net effect of the MP3 players has been to mega-ultra-ubiquitize music which had been ubiquitous already. And something that's there, always there, always waiting for us to consume it, always available -- how could we expect that people would have an intense relationship with that? That super-cheapo always everywhere slice of the service economy, serviced by mostly drastically underpaid or volunteer people. (I'm a volunteer; please download my music for free at my band's web site; link at the top right of this page.) Some earphone listeners do have that intense relationship, I'm sure, but not many. I'm guessing that Simon is right when he says about the download-and-earphone age,

I sense that there’s a lot more skimming and stockpiling, an obsessive-compulsion to hear everything and hoard as much music as you can, but much less actual obsession with specific arty-facts.

But I feel no compulsion to mourn. Like Frank O'Hara said, If people don't need poetry bully for them. Music is cheap-ified. I enjoy it too.

* I really enjoyed meeting Simon, however briefly, when he was in town for the Pop Music Conference a few weeks ago. Enjoyed meeting Douglas Wolk as well.

Sunday morning, Mother's Day, after breakfast the kid and I walked to the supermarket to get balloons and chocolate -- and eggs for brunch -- for the One Whose Day It Was while she slept in. I swear, I've never seen such a high percentage of men at the supermarket in my life. It was kind of sweet, at first, then a little depressing, to be reminded again what slackers most men are in the domestic arts department.

My son and I called my mom and had a nice talk with her. My brother and sister and my sister's family had dinner with her. Wish I could have been there.

Saturday was the 6th anniversary of my wedding to my beloved spouse. Friends watched the kid while we went out to dinner Saturday night. They took this action photo of him wailing on a drum in their living room.

Six years -- and looking forward to many more. I'm a lucky man.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A friend says he can hear when singers are using auto-tune, the pitch correcting program widely used in pop recording in recent years. I have read others saying they can hear it.

I'm not sure that I ever have, but I think I may have on Wednesday.

A delightful, charming, chipper, somewhat familiar riff opened a tune on a pop station. When the singer came in I realized I had heard it a few times -- "Soak Up the Sun," the 2002 hit by Sheryl Crow, with the catchy tune and annoying lyrics -- "I'm gonna tell everyone to lighten up," the least lightening-up of phrases, unless it's said with the lightest and most compassionate of touches, which the song does not manage.

The choirs of overdubbed Sheryls on the song's choruses sound like harmony-on-MSG, flavor-enhanced harmony, solid block of physical harmony. Made me think, hmm, I wonder -- is it auto-tune? And then I noticed the portamentos, the glides from one note to another, and they were perfectly smooth and symmetrical. As if achieved with the twiddle of a nob.

I think I heard auto-tune.

Listen for the portamentos.

* * *

I've been making a list of all my songs, dating back to high school. So far it's up to 184, not counting band-written songs in college to which I contributed treble guitar riffs, but including songs for plays and 9 instrumentals. I co-wrote 29 with friends and family members. An additional 25 are settings of texts by people I don't know.

Topical songs, wedding songs (two played at actual weddings), songs of death and dying, love songs, lust songs, songs about work, party songs, songs of angst, songs of self-doubt and self-loathing, a birth song, family songs, relationship songs, songs of friendship, narrative ballads, non-signifying word salads, walking songs, car songs, a bicycle song, a waiting-for-the-bus song, songs of economic anxiety, animal songs, lullabies, seasonal songs, songs of illness (“Hospital,” “The Headache,”), bathing songs (“Singing in the Shower,” “Why Is Nat Not Washing Himself” [written with my son]), eating and drinking songs. No songs about boats or trains. One song mentions an airport. No hate songs, excluding political songs. A number of not-particularly-good songs. But a lot I’d be happy to play for you some time.

I’m still learning. I didn’t successfully set prose until I was past 40. And now on the horizon of my mind’s ear I’m
faintly hearing different types of song than what I’ve written before. The itch. I’m glad to have it.

* * *

Update, Sunday, May 13. I remembered three more songs today, including one I had been thinking of playing at an upcoming gig. New total, 187.

Update, late Monday night, May 14. Remembered two more, new total 189. But I must confess, this list may be a cheat, as I don't remember a lot of the songs in full. I did, however, write them, and performed the vast majority of them in public at one time, or recorded them. Some of them are very short. I've always loved haiku.

Update, May 18. I remembered two more, one today and one yesterday. New total 191.

Update, June 9. Came across one in the archive of this blog, while looking for something else. 192.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

We've had to ban potty talk from the dinner table -- no talk of "fart" or "poop" or "pee" -- and so the kid was mighty pleased with himself when he started chanting at dinner Wednesday night, "Art and oop and ee! Art and oop and ee!" I had to give him credit.

(I remember in high school coming across the word "fart" in one of the Canterbury Tales -- a young married woman had agreed to kiss an old man from her window as long as he closed his eyes. When he arrived, she stuck her ass out and farted in his face. I thought I remembered Brueghel depicting it, but The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559, is always welcome.)

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

I don’t remember who asked the question -- it may have been Ann Powers -- but regardless of who asked it, it’s interesting.

What songs do you know that you have never heard recorded?

I know a few Boy Scout songs that don’t bear remembering. A bunch of songs I’ve written and a bunch by friends. Songs by my son. (“Standing on the Chin” is going to be a HIT, I tell you, a HIT.)

And a few songs that my grandpa taught me.

I’ve mentioned “My Sweet Hortense,” and I recently came across an image of the sheet music. Grandpa didn’t know many of the words, but the ones he knew, he sang with gusto. I’ve still only ever heard a few of the words, and the lyrics aren’t posted.

My favorite that he taught me is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” a lovely melancholic waltz I used to teach to people back when I wrote music for plays. I would sing it with the cast in rehearsals as a warm-up song.

The lyrics capture the traditional medieval trope of the vanity (and brevity) of human existence with persuasive self-pity.

I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding ;
I've looked everywhere.
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.

Today I saw a photo of a local political heavyweight from 35 years ago, when he led a takeover of City Hall, bearded, blue-jeaned, and wearing a bandana folded into a headband, looking like a tough hippie. In the photo of the victory celebration, he is standing with one fist raised. On his other raised hand sits a 2- or 3-year-old girl with her fist raised. Presumably she’s in her late 30s now, whoever she is. And the political chief wears suits and meets with governors and mayors and cabinet secretaries.

“It seems like it all happened only yesterday.”

Two Boys blowing Bubbles ("Homo Bulla" [man is a bubble]), about 1670, Caspar Netscher

Homo Bulla (man is a bubble), 2005, Julee Holcombe

Monday, May 07, 2007

[the original version of this post was a lot grumpier. but not about "Sugar Sugar." never about "Sugar Sugar."]

Sugar, ah honey honey
You are my candy girl
And you've got me wanting you.
Honey, ah sugar sugar
You are my candy girl
And you've got me wanting you.

I just can't believe the loveliness of loving you
(I just can't believe it's true)
I just can't believe the one to love this feeling to.
(I just can't believe it's true)

Ah sugar, ah honey honey
You are my candy girl
And you've got me wanting you.
Ah honey, ah sugar sugar
You are my candy girl
And you've got me wanting you.

When I kissed you, girl, I knew how sweet a kiss could be
(I know how sweet a kiss can be)
Like the summer sunshine pour your sweetness over me
(Pour your sweetness over me)

Sugar, pour a little sugar on it honey,
Pour a little sugar on it baby
I'm gonna make your life so sweet, yeah yeah yeah
Pour a little sugar on it oh yeah
Pour a little sugar on it honey,
Pour a little sugar on it baby
I'm gonna make your life so sweet, yeah yeah yeah
Pour a little sugar on it honey,
Ah sugar, ah honey honey
You are my candy girl
And you've got me wanting you.
Oh honey, honey, sugar sugar . . .
You are my candy girl . . .

It’s one of the great kinky songs of all time, conflating eating and sex in a delirium of stickiness -- sugar as woman, sugar as love, the lover telling his beloved sugar that he will make her sweeter, making sugar sweeter, wanting the sugar, sex as sweet-tooth, with the ecstatic capper, the joyful plea to “pour a little sugar on it,” the antecedentless “it,” das Es, the Id, the unconscious, the genitals, the singer begging the beloved to pour the sugar-which-is-herself onto his prick -- this is great smut!

And the lovely eco-pagan touch -- sex as sunshine, like the summer sunshine pour your sweetness over me, the bare ecological fact that without the sun there is no life, and that any of life’s sweetness can be attributed to the sun, the sun among other powers and potentates.

There are sound reasons to hear the antecedentless “it” the way I do. The English translation of Freud’s theoretical book The Ego and the Id takes the common solid German words Das Ich und das Es and instead of turning them into the common solid English of The I and the It, imposes the Latin Ego and Id on them. In Hollywood-speak, “It” is sex appeal; Clara Bow, the “It” girl. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to conflate the unconscious Freudian It with the sexy Hollywood It and hear genitals in any poetic antecedentless “it” -- especially when the song is about sex already.

The more traditional interpretation of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” is: It’s just bubblegum, it’s just fluff, the slightest of slender slips and airy poofs of pop -- a catchy tune, nice to tap your foot to, nothing worth paying attention to.

And, of course, my reading of “it” is only one possibility. The general interpretation seems to be that the “it” upon which the honey is to pour a little sugar is the atmosphere, the situation in general, or, at the most lascivious, the singer’s lips.

His singing though -- listen to his singing. He’s excited. More excited than kissing had made him earlier. He’s very excited. He’s excited.

The music carries information that isn’t in the words by themselves. In addition to the excited tone in which the singer declaims his desire for poured sugar, we take into account his light grainy tenor voice that earlier in the song had gone from friendly to exuberant, from cheerful to ecstatic. There’s the cheery strummy acoustic rhythm guitar (which Nick Lowe paid a lot of attention to). One of the song
’s hookiest hooks is the insistent persistent riff answering the lines of the chorus, played in octaves on a xylophone and organ (I think), the legato bass notes of the organ giving the riff heft and obsession, the staccato treble notes of the xylophone giving it clatter and excitement. The arranger deserves credit for the celebratory build-up of choral voices at the end, a communal testimonial for the joys of sex as the lead singer reaches his timbral and melodic and verbal climax.

Not to mention the melody or the register shifts between chorus and verse and outro -- and obviously, this is barely scratching the surface of a repetitive song lasting two minutes and 44 seconds. Anyone who hears the song is processing this information, consciously or unconsciously. And since the song is an Oldies radio perennial, a lot of people must be liking what they’re processing.

I’ve been thinking about “Sugar Sugar” because Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor devote a chapter to it in their recent book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. Barker and Taylor’s book explores the psycho-social dynamics of authenticity in popular music and the complex interactions between a performer’s person and persona and audience. And while I have objections to some of their attitudes toward music in general and toward some of the particular pieces that they discuss, on the question of authenticity -- the book’s center -- Barker and Taylor are excellent.

Barker and Taylor assemble a series of profiles, from Mississippi John Hurt and Jimmie Rodgers, to early folk-blues-country impresarios Ralph Peer and John Lomax, to Elvis & Ray Charles, to the Archies & John Lennon, to Neil Young & Billy Joel, to Donna Summer to John (-ny Rotten) Lydon to Ry Cooder to Moby to Nirvana and Leadbelly. With engaging and informative histories they show how the artists interacted with imposed or self-imposed notions of authenticity.

They make a persuasive case against the notion that authenticity is ultimately obtainable -- a case which could save a lot of authenticity-obsessed musicians a lot of needless grief. Kurt Cobain is the most extreme example of a victim of unobtainable ideals of authenticity, and Barker and Taylor begin by juxtaposing his story with that of a musician he revered and covered, Leadbelly. Leadbelly in his way was a victim -- and also a beneficiary -- of myths of the authenticity of acoustic music by rural black people. Without a white audience buying into that myth, he may never have had a professional career, and yet that myth influenced his audience to perceive him as personally “primitive” as well as musically intense.

Barker and Taylor are rightfully relentless in their case against the myth that “undiluted” cultures exist without influence from other cultures. This myth of cultural authenticity has informed how the folk music canon was developed and, to a lesser extent, how world music has been researched and received in the industrial west.

They make a case that I hope changes the nature of pop music’s cultural consensus.

Barker and Taylor may be well suited to change the nature of pop music’s consensus, because in most ways they speak from within its center, and they uncritically buy into some of its myths. They speak for a conservative consensus when they say,

Art has to be evaluated by some criteria -- some artists have always aimed to please their audience, while others have aimed to satisfy their own need to project their inner selves outward. The latter urge is no less valid than the former, but it cannot be called successful unless it connects with an audience, no matter how small -- in other words, it must be tempered by some kind of audience consideration.

The criteria they seek are a mirage -- maybe a collectively hallucinated mirage, but a mirage. Aesthetic judgments can only ever be personal. You might hear the Archies and think, what an annoying melody! What annoying words! I hear them differently, and I’ve tried to articulate why, but that doesn’t mean that anybody’s wrong to hate the Archies. In other words, when making aesthetic judgments, the only audience that the auditor need consider -- and the only audience that anyone can authoritatively speak for -- is himself or herself. To speak for others is either to speculate or to engage in sociology or history -- interesting sidelights to criticism, but not necessary. I enjoy music history -- a lot; I enjoy learning about the development of techniques and lineages of influence from musician to musician. But while aesthetic experience is informed by history, it is not primarily concerned with historical issues. A lot of criticism confuses the two.

Barker and Taylor are able historians who have chosen to salt their history with criticism. As critics, they are only occasionally perceptive in a way that is not already in general circulation -- I particularly liked the parallels they draw between Mississippi John Hurt’s late career revival and Ibrahim Ferrer’s. Sometimes they’re simply off the wall, as when they say of Pleased to Meet Me, the Replacements’ 6th album (counting Stink but not The Shit Hits the Fans), “for the first time, this sounded like a band that actually knew how to play their instruments” -- that’s nuts! (And it’s also insulting -- another rockcrit habit I object to.) In most of their judgments they’re middle of the road, but their critical middle-of-the-road-itude will probably rhetorically help their case as historians with the majority of their audience. The book has been fantastically well-reviewed.

Among academically-minded rock critics it has become less fashionable to speak as though from a place of central authority, as Barker and Taylor do, but most rockers still believe in the myth of objective aesthetic criteria that the authors speak from. Barker and Taylor’s closeness to the consensus on most issues will help the cause of their case against the myth of authenticity -- a central tenet of the rock belief. At least, I hope it does.

And no -- I don’t think they’re faking it. I don’t believe they have made a rhetorical choice to dismiss progressive rock with a single unsupported noun because they know that such reflexive attitudes are shared by most of their potential audience. I think they share such reflexive attitudes as well for the most part.

And, as Barker and Taylor argue skillfully and perceptively and consciously throughout their book -- baby, that is how pop works. By limiting their challenge to one particular corner of the rockcrit domain, they may be better able to have a positive effect on people’s attitudes than if they were attempting a full-on revisioning -- a revisioning that I would love to see. Of course, by speaking here for a potential audience that does not include myself, I’m engaging in sociological speculation, not criticism.

Archie said it best. Pour a little sugar on it.

* * *

I recommend the book to anybody who is interested in the topic. If you’re curious, check out Barker and Taylor's blog, which also has a link to the book. I thank them for prodding me to think about “Sugar Sugar” -- which turns out to be a more interesting song than I had ever imagined. On their blog, they’re prodding me to think about the musical effects of group spontaneity -- how group interaction may sharpen instrumentalists’ attack and accenting. It is subtle stuff not well understood -- I am glad they are grappling with tricky, interesting issues.

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