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

Thursday, June 28, 2007

love love love love love -- it's a swinging thing.
(so say the Shirelles. i'm with the Shirelles.)

I watched the finale of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip tonight, and really enjoyed the ending, in part because way back in October I predicted that “the show will be the love story of Matt & Danny” -- and I was right! The last scene in which more than one character appeared depicted Matt and Danny telling each other they love each other! Very sweet.

I mostly kept watching the show so I could better enjoy Lance Mannion’s live blog of it, and the bantering commentary, which I, living on the west coast, always read as a recap.

It wasn’t a very good show, and I’m not sad to see it go, but I don’t regreat having watched it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

the burning deck on which the boy stood.

Those of us still on the burning deck of good usage believe that unique -- the paradigm of absolute solitude -- can never be modified with an insipid very, quite, rather, almost or practically. -- William Safire, "On Language," 6/24/2007, New York Times
I showed Sunday's "On Language" column to my beloved spouse because modifying the adjective "unique" bugs her -- and not wrongly so. The line quoted above made her laugh, but she didn't recognize the allusion to a ghastly 19th century poem, "Casabianca" by Felicia Hemans.

The poem commemorates an actual event from history. A man named Casabianca captained a ship in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. As his ship burned down, his 13-year-old son held his post.

Hemans's poem applauds the boy's faithful heart.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood, 5
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames roll'd on­-he would not go
Without his father's word; 10
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He call'd aloud-­"Say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?"
He knew not that the chieftain lay 15
Unconscious of his son.

"Speak, Father!" once again he cried,
"If I may yet be gone!"
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames roll'd on. 20

Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And look'd from that lone post of death
In still, yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud, 25
"My Father! must I stay?"
While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high, 30
And stream'd above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound­-
The boy­-oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around 35
With fragments strewed the sea!­-

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perish'd there
Was that young faithful heart! 40

Safire knows he's losing the usage war. His allusion to the poem -- which, I'm guessing, he may have learned in elementary school, back when people learned poems in school -- implies that the Father of Good Usage is always already dead, and his faithful sons (and daughters) can only cry for His guidance helplessly as they await their doom in the fiery battle.

This essay connects Alan Turing and his Turing test to the poem.

-- George Arnald (1763 - 1841), The Explosion Of L’Orient During The Battle Of The Nile

Monday, June 25, 2007

they played with Kronos.

After posting last week on Richard Rorty and the contingency of language, my thinking went on two divergent tracks.

* * *

First, I went back and re-read the essay that first introduced me to Rorty, “It’s Only As Good As It Sounds,” by Kyle Gann, which was recently reprinted in his terrific collection, Music Downtown. I read Kyle’s piece when it first came out in 1990 in the Village Voice (back when the Voice could boast not only the most prolific and comprehensive and widely respected post-classical critic in English (Kyle), but also the most prolific and comprehensive and widely respected jazz critic of the past 20 years (Gary Giddins) as well as the most prolific and comprehensive and one of the most highly regarded rock critics (Robert Christgau)). I should not have been surprised to rediscover thinking in the piece that sounds like my own Anti-Manifestoism. I have mentioned that Kyle expanded my horizons, but I have no doubt that encountering his writing when I did encouraged me in my habits of mind as well.

Among other things, Kyle argues in the piece, following Rorty, that different styles in music (as in philosophy) can’t necessarily be fused successfully, when the different styles have differing underlying assumptions.

I’ve been thinking lately about Kronos Quartet as “ugly Americans” -- people who feel that their American passports and ample pocketbooks allow them to go anywhere and do anything they like. It’s unfair to call them “Ugly Americans,” but I really felt that way upon hearing the track they recorded with the amazing Romanian Rom band Taraf de Haidouks, on the Kronos collection Caravan. I’ve seen Taraf de Haidouks live and own two of their collections, and they’re astonishing virtuosos. Kronos Quartet has chops -- on a tune from Taraf’s repertory, Kronos fits in, they keep up. But why are they there? Ah, the tune has gone on for several minutes, and here comes their “feature” spot (arranged by Osvaldo Golijov). And it’s 20th century classical ho-hummery. Really, it detracts from the whole. What the hell is Kronos doing on this tune?

To be fair, Kronos can be equally ugly toward their fellow Americans. Their intrusions on an archival recording of Charles Ives singing his song “They Are There!” are grotesque -- they actually mock Ives, putting a sarcastic exclamation where Ives had a rest! And the arrangement for themselves of a wonderful Harry Partch piece (“Barstow”) -- it’s awful. I usually have no problem with transcription from one ensemble to another -- it’s a longstanding and often gloriously fruitful classical tradition. But Partch for string quartet doesn’t work. At least not for me.

From another angle, I applaud Kronos’s omnivorous musical appetite. They work extremely hard and have wide-open and generous ears. The attention they bring to manifold corners of the music world is healthy and positive. The only problem is -- musically it often makes no sense, it doesn’t work. Which is fine! Experiments fail. Good for them for going for it.

Re-reading Kyle’s piece, and thinking about the subtle particularities of musical style, I realize why these fusions so rarely work. Jazz-classical fusions (for example) have tried to address rhythmic collisions between the traditions, but the differences are more basic and subtle than what can be addressed with notation.

The classical “difference” may be notation itself -- or notation-centrism, for jazz and many other styles employ notation. Some weeks ago I was reading a collection of Virgil Thomson’s writing, and I was struck by his praise for Edith Piaf and “all that vast authority of singing style.” The stylistic authority of pop stars outweighs that of all but the most iconoclastic classical stars, because stars in every style I know of other than classical have greater demands of individuality of phrasing, attack, decay, timbre, and even pitch placed upon them than classical players are even allowed. Classical ensemble players -- such as those in a quartet -- have even less leeway in these matters.

So, when classical players improvise, even if they know the stylistic boundaries of whatever style they are playing in, they rarely have the technical chops demanded. It’s not that the other techniques are more difficult or more advanced or more complex -- it’s that in the grainy details they’re fundamentally antithetical to classical chops.

* * *

The other track I followed after posting on Rorty: I sent my query to Michael Berube, whose obituary for Rorty spurred me down this line.

To recap: Berube had said that “I was never quite convinced by Rorty's claims that the languages of the physical sciences were as contingent as any other form of language.” I wrote and asked him whether the recent demotion of Pluto’s status from that of planet to that of dwarf planet did not indicate scientific language was contingent on present consensus and understanding.

He kindly wrote back, and it turns out that my misunderstanding was contingent on which definition of “contingent” was operational.

According to the dictionary (and looking only at the adjective forms):

con*tin*gent [kuhn-tin-juhnt] - adjective
1. dependent for existence, occurrence, character, etc., on something not yet certain; conditional (often fol. by on or upon): Our plans are contingent on the weather.
2. liable to happen or not; uncertain; possible: They had to plan for contingent expenses.
3. happening by chance or without known cause; fortuitous; accidental: contingent occurrences.
4. Logic. (of a proposition) neither logically necessary nor logically impossible, so that its truth or falsity can be established only by sensory observation.

After going back and forth with Michael, it seemed to me that his contention was completely valid if we stick with definition three. Scientific language -- or, perhaps, a scientific claim of truth -- is less accidental than other language (or claims of truth); less, say, random. Looking at definition one or four, however, I would argue that scientific language is more contingent than most others.

I was grateful to Michael for patiently walking me through my confusion. That the confusion hinged on rival definitions of a key word strikes me as . . . fizzily delightful.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

As long as we haven't extincted ourselves, we won't know how the human story ends, and if we were to extinct ourselves, there wouldn't be anybody to tell or hear the tale, and all of human history would have been a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Nothing, to nobody. Unless God is listening. I don't believe he is.

Solstice Eve we went to a lecture on astrobiology, which addressed the possibility of life on Mars and on Saturn's moons. The lecturers mentioned an astronomer who has projected statistical possibilities of intelligent life on other planets. The use of statistical analysis seemed goofy, and the presenters spoke solemnly of Controversy surrounding this supposition or that. If X percent of earth-like planets have conditions for life, on how many will life develop? If X percent of planets with life evolve intelligent species, how many will develop technology to the point that they will be sending out radio waves? How amusing that people argue seriously over what X should equal in each instance, I thought at first, but maybe it's no more silly than arguing over who's the best guitarist.

What was striking: The model assumes that the intelligent species will thrive for only a limited time -- 10,000 years? 20,000 years? The lecturers assumed their most solemn tones to tell us that this is the most controversial supposition of all.

The astrobiologists implied that intelligence may end up having proved to have been an evolutionary blind alley -- in other words, having developed the tools to extinct ourselves, there is no reason to suppose that we won't eventually use them.

There is no way of knowing. Here's hoping we don't.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Various musical thoughts lately -- when I sit to set them down they flutter away like startled butterflies, they evaporate like nascent rainclouds, and so I'm left hoping for a cloudburst before too long, or a prolonged visitation with the butterflies.

The image is 10th century musical notation, if memory serves. I stole the image from a web site without making note of the image or the site, thinking I could find it again, and now I can't. Much like the notation itself -- can anybody read it?
(I can't read the writing either.)

One afternoon in late 1999 I was taking a group cab from Petra to Amman, Jordan, with a bunch of European tourists I had recently met. A young woman from the Netherlands put a cassette on, which the cabbie agreed to. It was '90s Euro-techno-dance music; I enjoyed it. Then the Netherlandish woman got tired of it and put on Led Zeppelin. "Led Zeppelin is like the Beatles," she said (she was in her early 20s), "Everybody likes them, and you can put them on in any mood or situation and it's fine."

Years before, 2 musician friends and I had discussed who set the industry standard in the '70s as the Beatles had (in many respects) in the '60s. I proposed the Eagles, which I regretted later (though I do like the Eagles).

Led Zeppelin -- they were it.

They sounded great across the Jordanian desert.

-- Jordanian desert above the Dead Sea, courtesy of these people.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It was the late, lamented Steve Gilliard who first, to my knowledge, publicly speculated that my other favorite political blogger, Digby, might be a woman.

Steve was right.

Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake has written about her friendship with Digby, and so it is no surprise that when Digby decided to reveal herself, she did so on Jane’s blog -- and it brings a mix of deep emotions to see Steve proven right.

In Jane’s words -- Ladies and Gentleman, Digby.

* * *

My mom has kept my dad's greeting on her answering machine. Today when I called I had forgotten, and I was really happy -- for a moment -- to hear his voice. "Oh, Dad, there's so much to tell you."

* * *

And a lot of it bad news -- an acquaintance of whom I am very fond lost her third and last brother, to liver failure from alcoholism. She had lost another brother to alcoholism, and her other brother was murdered.

Another acquaintance is facing a rather terrifying surgery, for which a specialist must be scheduled weeks ahead of time and flown in. I was shaken up when I heard.

Other troubles, strictly personal -- trouble and sorrow about which I can't do much.

* * *

With my dad gone, my connection to his childhood is gone. He has a brother and an uncle still living, but I'm not close to them in nearly the same way -- I don't, for instance, know their birthdays. My mom keeps me connected to my grandparents in a way that nobody else will be able to, because I was close to her parents in a way that my siblings were not -- though they know our grandparents' birthdays. My siblings will always keep me connected to our dad. Relationships are contextual. We're going to visit my mom in a couple of weeks, and it will be my first trip back since Dad's funeral. Talking with my sister the other day, I broke down sobbing when she talked about driving through a small town where grandparents of Dad's had lived. I don't know if I've ever driven through that town without Dad, at least not for many years, and always there was a story, which nobody now remembers. He was the lore master.

* * *

"We can't come to the phone right now," says my dad's voice on the answering machine. No, Dad, I don't suppose you can. It's nice to hear from you anyway.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I don't know much about philosophy, but I know what I like.

The thing* is, I don't know how I know.

And I'm OK with that.

One style of argument substitutes a macho display of name-dropping for thinking or conviction, like junior high boys waving their eruditions around -- "mine's bigger than yours."** I recognize that name-dropping also functions as jargon, as an intellectual shorthand for people within a discourse community, and familiarity with said jargon marks one as in or out. And so I notice when I'm out; my out-ness sticks out.

If you want to have fun at the dance, it helps to know the steps.

-- Raphael, School of Athens, 1509

* Das Ding an sich? Nah, it's just an expression, though our relationship to our own consciousness may be as thingful as anything.
** I know I do this too.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Not that anybody asked, but this is what I believe.

I believe that the world -- the universe -- is out there, or rather, here, and that we are part of it.

I believe that the universe would continue to exist without human perception, and that it existed before human perception.

I believe that while human perception, imagination, and understanding can come to more-or-less accurate accounts of phenomena, two limits hem these accounts in: First, we have no way of knowing with absolute certainty which portions of our accounts are accurate; and second, nobody will ever have a complete account of phenomena, and not just because of temporal limits or Heisenbergian limits. I believe that uncounted phenomena will remain opaque to human understanding. For example, we may never understand what dark energy is or how it works. By contrast, we may learn that what we are presently calling “dark energy” is really something else altogether. Another example: Will we ever understand why it is that when two highly flammable gases -- hydrogen and oxygen -- fuse, they become something which smothers fire, and not something super-extra-fiery?

Michael Berube’s thoughts on the death of philosopher Richard Rorty prompt these reflections. As with quite a lot else, I first learned of Rorty in Kyle Gann’s Village Voice column, many years ago. Gann’s account of Rorty’s pragmatism seemed congenial to me, and I’ve never read Rorty, though just tonight I reserved his book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity from the library.

In his obituary, Berube states, “I was never quite convinced by Rorty's claims that the languages of the physical sciences were as contingent as any other form of language.” “Contingent on what?” you may ask, as Berube did of Rorty in a graduate seminar, to which Rorty replied: "Not contingent on anything, just … contingent."

Please forgive me if my ill-informed state leads me to blatantly blunder in asking this, but didn’t Pluto’s recent demotion from planet-status reveal the contingent nature of scientific language? Isn’t it contingent on the limits of present understanding and consensus? Hasn’t the language of science evolved over time even more drastically than than the language of poetry? Or am I completely missing the boat on the meaning of “contingent,” and stepping off the dock and into the drink -- in short, am I all wet?

As I reflect on the roots of my non-anti-rational skepticism, I realize I must have been influenced by Taoism. When I hitch-hiked across the country at the age of 19, I took the Tao Te Ching with me -- and maybe the Chuang Tzu as well. And now I don’t remember where I first heard about Taoism. In college? Probably. In a class? I don’t think so. From another student? Quite likely -- maybe my friend Jeff D.? From reading Alan Watts? And why would I have been reading Alan Watts? Not for a class -- because John Cage mentioned him? Does John Cage mention him? Quite possibly not! I would have been reading Cage because I was a music nerd (though not a music student).

Whatever the case may be, I seem to have lost my edition of Chuang Tzu, which disappoints me for a number of reasons. But in looking for a passage on language that I half-remembered, I found some relevant stuff that I’m sure I read as a teen-ager. Here are two passages from the chapter, “Discussion on Making All Things Equal,” in Burton Watson’s standard translation.

Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I had beaten you instead of you beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong? If you and I don't know the answer, then other people are bound to be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to decide what is right? Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly? Shall we get someone who agrees with me? But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us? But if he already disagrees with both of us, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who agrees with both of us? But if he already agrees with both of us, how can he decide? Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer. Shall we wait for still another person? . . .

Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there a difference or isn't there?

This is the quote I was looking for -- not quite as relevant, as it turns out, but still lively.

The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?

Condolences to Rorty’s family and friends.

-- The image, if I'm not mistaken, is of Chuang Tzu conversing with a friend.
Thomas Merton used it on the cover of his edition of the writings attributed to Chuang Tzu.
I don't know the source of the picture.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Bicycling in my neighborhood at dusk today, I waved hello to my librarian and stopped and chatted with the produce man and the former meat counter man at my grocery.

I don't know any of these people's names.

I love my neighborhood.

* * *

The sweetest montage I ever heard was in an NPR piece when Mr. Rogers died. A reporter collected recordings of people singing his theme song, and edited a complete performance from his interviewees, each of them singing one line apiece, in correct order. I heard old people, young people, white people, black people -- everybody loved Mr. Rogers.

And it's a nice song! He was a music major in college, and the chords are jazzy.

I used to sing the song to my son when he was a baby -- it was a diaper-changing song. "I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you." Tender song.

* * *

I dissed NPR recently, in limericks, in the comments thread of a post by Kyle Gann. Then I felt bad for dissing NPR -- and not just because they played an excerpt from a song of mine in a story once (and posted the whole song on the web). (The song is satirical, so my dismissive formulation "aesthetic mock tale" isn't necessarily dissing myself -- necessarily.)

I don't like most of NPR's news hosts -- the chronic ho-hum tones of their voices are the sonic equivalents of the dictionary-picture definition of "liberal elite." But they do have some good stories and shows. I don't expect aesthetic adventurousness from them.

* * *

My song, which NPR posted in November 2005, is a setting of an excerpt from a letter Scooter Libby sent to former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, urging her to take the necessary steps to win her release from jail. (Alex Ross suggested it as a possible song text.) Now Libby has been sentenced to 30 months. He deserves it -- at least.

* * *

And, you know, even if I bumped into Libby regularly at my neighborhood grocery store or library, I'd still think he needs to go to prison. But then, I have never wanted to have a neighbor just like him. I feel bad, thinking Mr. Rogers might disapprove. But some of my neighbors, I don't like them just the way they are.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Reading the New York Review of Books, I learn that in his new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, political scientist Chalmers Johnson compares the U.S. to the Roman and British Empires. He
swats aside the conventional objection that, in contrast with both Romans and Britons, Americans have never constructed colonies abroad. Oh, but they have, he says; it's just that Americans are blind to them. America is an "empire of bases," he writes, with a network of vast, hardened military encampments across the earth, each one a match for any Roman or Raj outpost. Official figures speak of 737 US military bases in foreign countries, adding up to an armed American presence, whether large or small, in 132 of the 190 member states of the United Nations.

More than 2/3rds of the member states of the UN host American military bases -- that’s mind-boggling.

* * *

My cousin's wife died of cancer at age 50 last week. I liked her a lot, but we weren't close, and I'm not particularly close with my cousin, but I cried when I heard of how he sat in vigil by his wife's side, talking to her and petting her as she lay unconscious and dying. My cousin is fairly taciturn, but he cried and cried at my dad's funeral.

* * *

Also last week the daughter-in-law of my wife's cousin lost a baby days before she was due to deliver.

* * *

The suffering of family weighed on me last week, and still we went about our business, joking with the kid, going on lovely outings after work some times. The incongruity jars. And we live with the incongruity every day, if not always in regards to family, then in regards to politics.

* * *

"Official figures speak of 737 US military bases in foreign countries" -- that doesn't count unofficially acknowledged bases, probably another couple-few hundred, all over the world.

* * *

The kid tried to write something, without requesting assistance with the spelling, for the first time a couple of days ago.


He told me what it said: "Recipe cookies donuts ice cream water."

* * *

In the Presidential campaign of the year briefly known as Y2K (and I miss that nickname -- the current year is Y2K7 as far as I'm concerned), I went round and round with various lefty friends, acquaintances, and strangers, trying to talk them out of voting for Nader. Yes, yes, I would agree, the Democrats are an infuriatingly moderate-conservative pro-plutocrat, pro-military party, mediocre-to-compromised on a host of causes dear to progressives. BUT, I would continue, Bush would be so much worse on just about everything! And I vastly underestimated how bad Bush would be.

But -- everyday that the Democratic Congress does not act to impeach the Kakistocrats, I angrily remember all my lefty friends' scornful remarks about a one-party system. It's not a one-party system: We have a mostly moderate-conservative party that likes to play by the rules and with civility, and an extremist-reactionary party that cheats like crazy and lies with gross vituperation about the other party. It's not an inspiring choice, I know, but it remains a clear one, even when the nominal opposition party forgoes its responsibility to oppose. When one party is busy tearing the Constitution to shreds, if the other party has power to stop them and refuses to act, they aren't "just as guilty," but they're guilty.

* * *

The moderate-conservative party, of course, is just as pro-empire as the extremist-reactionary party; in fact, the moderates are much more competent at maintaining the empire. Welcome to human nature -- the top dog likes its bones. Always has, at least in recorded history.

* * *

We can, theoretically, do better. The practice, the praxis -- it's a long road, you know?

* * *

Time for bed. And I haven't written my cousin. Need to do that. Tomorrow.

* * *

One difference between the American empire and the British and Roman: By and large, people didn't hate the American. Note: past tense: didn't. Until, after the atrocity of September 11, the President beat his breast in front of the whole world and demanded obedience. What a prick.

What a fool.

What a colossal ignoramus.

But -- his blustery blundering does offer hope for a path out of the labyrinth of hate: Bring back diplomacy. Bring back respect. Bring back competence.

And -- even better -- dismantle the empire.

* * *

Time for bed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

My last appointment at work arrived 45 minutes late. I was miffed until it turned out that my interlocutor was a pianist and piano teacher. Favorite composers? Claude Bolling, Mozart, Rachmaninoff. Bolling, the pianist told me, played some of his own compositions too fast and elided the beauty of the harmonies. We spoke of Rachmaninoff's enormous hands. I wanted to mention his delicate touch, but the moment passed.

-- Rachmaninoff's hands

Tuesday, June 12, 2007



Jordan Davis, in comments to this post by Jonathan Mayhew, proposes the idea that in the arts, “Canonical history rewards the best differentiators, not necessarily the most reliable makers.”

Several years ago, I came across two versions of the Biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes, one by Caravaggio and one by Artemisia Gentileschi. Caravaggio gets into more of the art history books because he invented the style, and Artemisia is his follower. But her version of this scene blows his away. His Judith is a dainty thing, with an expression of “eww” as she daintly separates Holofernes’ head from his neck as if she were sitting at table eating a chicken breast. Artemisia’s Judith puts her muscle and her weight into the brute physical act of butchery.

In poetry, Pound is the master because he invented a strong modernist style, and yet I prefer many of his followers as poets to him -- H.D., Williams, Olson, Zukofsky. In music, John Cage opened up worlds of sound and ways of listening, and yet much of his music displeases me to listen to. I heard him read in college, though, and his reading was beautiful music.


"You mean that sound that sounds like the cutting edge of life? That sounds like polar bears crossing Arctic ice pans? That sounds like a herd of musk ox in full flight? That sounds like male walruses diving to the bottom of the sea? That sounds like fumaroles smoking on the slopes of Mt. Katmai? That sounds like the wild turkey walking through the deep, soft forest? That sounds like beavers chewing trees in an Appalachian marsh? That sounds like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk? That sounds like a mule deer wandering a montane of the Sierra Nevada? That sounds like prairie dogs kissing? That sounds like witch grass tumbling or a river meandering? That sounds like manatees munching seaweed at Cape Sable? That sounds like coatimundis moving in packs across the face of Arkansas? That sounds like--"

Donald Barthelme’s short story “The King of Jazz” might have laid to rest forever impressionistic music writing -- except that it shouldn’t have. There are all sorts of ways to experience music, and the impressionistic, imaginative response that Barthelme parodies with such virtuosity honors the power of music to activate layers of the brain that had lain dormant until the music arrived. Still, Barthelme’s parody is delightful. (My friend Jay showed this story to me more than 20 years ago.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

I'm grateful that the kid has never -- yet -- gotten on kicks where he wanted to hear his music over and over and over again. He did go through a Woody Guthrie phase where that was pretty much all he wanted to hear, but that was fine -- I love Woody. Usually he's happy to listen to whatever I've picked out, though he doesn't much like hard rock or free jazz or dissonant modern classical. He has pretty good ears -- he often can pick out the nationality of music he has never heard before -- or at least the continent. "That's African music!" Or, when I put on some mariachi music once, he said, "Polkas!" He was close!

Today he had a fever and was sick and sleepy. My beloved spouse and I were eating dinner while he rested on the couch. I asked him if he wanted to hear some music, if there was anything in particular he would like to hear. He said, Sure, he'd like to hear some music, but he would like me to pick it out -- whatever I want to hear. My spouse sensibly suggested something quiet and soothing, and I put on piano music of J.S. Bach's son C.P.E. It fit the bill without being listless, and the kid fell asleep. Poor little guy.


The other afternoon:

While parking the car, he says: "Careful not to crash into the other car, Daddoo."

"Oh, but I like to crash into other cars!"

"Have you ever crashed into another car before?"


"Then how do you know if you like it?" -- said with some disdain.


A day or 2 later:

"Why was there no President before George Washington?"

"Because before then America was part of England."

"Why did America not be part of England any more?"

"Because England was in charge, and America had to do what England said, and America didn't want to pay so much in taxes."

"Did England make America pay taxes all day every day?"

And I thought of how weak the Spirit of '76 has grown in our land, and how the depredations of the Cheney Regency (as I saw someone call the administration recently) betray humanity.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Bad Plus

Recent listenings:

Has there been a songwriter in the last 100 years who has written more tenderly and movingly and ecstatically about marriage and parenthood than Brian Wilson? His marriage songs melt me: “And Your Dream Comes True,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “I Do,” “We’ll Run Away” -- and I didn’t even like the only hit of the bunch, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” until I got married myself. On parenthood, there’s “When a Man Meets a Woman” (which is a little weird), and, better, “I Wanna Pick You Up,” from the eccentric mid-’70s collection Love You. My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey has recorded a gorgeous cover of it, with his kids singing back-up. Jay brings a warmer timbre to the song than gruff (though charming) mid-’70s Brian was managing, and he comes up with some tasty backing on organ. I don’t how long he’ll have it up, so check it out. At the same link is his 4-year-old daughter Lilly’s spirited rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and two songs from his terrific EP of last year.


“Shadow Dancers,” the lead track from The New Boss Guitar of George Benson with the Brother Jack McDuff Quartet. Benson’s first alb as a leader, age 21, catchy swinging funky jazz of 1964. Tasty guitar, honking tenor sax from Red Holloway, fine swing from drummer Montego Joe and bassist Ronnie Boykins, and fine uncredited bongos which the liner notes speculate may have been played by organist McDuff who otherwise is not heard on the track. Benson has been a star as long as the Rolling Stones.


I got the soundtrack from the recent movie Music and Lyrics from the library. The two main songs by Adam Schlesinger have gotten a lot of praise, but I haven’t read anything about how subtly he crafted the movie’s through-song, “Way Back Into Love,” which the protagonists spend the movie writing.

The chorus comes around three times, followed by a tag that lasts longer each time. After the first chorus, the singers sing “Whoa-oa-oa-oa.” After the second, they sing, “And if I open my heart again / I guess I’m hoping you’ll be there for me in the end.” And the song’s climax comes with the third post-chorus tag, where the singers passionately, ecstatically declare their love and commitment, “And if I open my heart to you / I’m hoping you’ll show me what to do / And if you help me to start again / You know that I’ll be there for you in the end.” Hooray for love!

The faux-’80s “hit” in the movie, “Pop Goes My Heart,” is an instantly catchy synth-pop number with happening electric drums, and a clever-sweet chorus, “I said I wasn’t going to lose my head / But then Pop! goes my heart / I wasn’t going to fall in love again / But then Pop! goes my heart.” And it isn’t until the lead-up to the last chorus, when the band goes quiet and foregrounds the lyrics, that I noticed the poignancy of the situation. Before reiterating the chorus, the singer repeats the lead-up lines, this time more prominently, “A twist of fate makes life worthwhile.” Life wasn’t worthwhile, he wasn’t going to love again, and then Pop! went his heart! The tone of the song emphasizes present happiness, rather than the melancholy of the immediate past. Numerous pre-rock pop songs share the same story but with an inverted emphasis: The Glenn Miller and Etta James hit “At Last” (music by the great Harry Warren) being perhaps the most well-known example -- at last, against expectations, and can you believe it -- love.

Someone stole the booklet notes from my library copy, so I don’t know who wrote the Britney homage, “Buddha’s Delight,” sung by the movie’s “current” pop star, played by Haley Bennett. It’s a clever Bollywood-dance-hit pastiche, with a catchy distorted-synth Bollywood-style riff opening the tune, and a catchy tune and chorus, and really disrespectful Buddhist-Hindu pastiche lyrics for a sex song, which I might find hilarious if I were an ex-Buddhist or ex-Hindu, but I’m not, and so it just strikes me as tres cheeky, regardless of whether the writer is from a Hindu or Buddhist background. If not, then add a dollop of entitlement to the cheekiness.

A number of Top 40 rock and R&B hits of the last few years have shared a musical trick that always catches my ear: An abrupt and unexpected full-band stop that sounds as if all the air is being sucked out of the room for a beat. The opening of “Buddha’s Delight” pulls the same effect, and I finally figured out why it sounds like the song is dropping into a vaccuum: The songs all share a reverb-y atmosphere, and when all the sound vanishes, without the slightest echo, it is psycho-acoustic space that is disappearing -- not just the air, but the whole room. And it sounds neat-o.


On the recommendations of John Rockwell (in a terrific essay in this book) and Jody Rosen (anachronistically known as the Anachronist -- in comments), I got Burl Ives’s greatest hits from the library, a collection spanning 1945 to 1967. As a kid, I knew him as the narrator and singer of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer annual TV show, and from a gas station my parents had bought for me a Disney compilation on which Ives sang “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly).” At some point I saw him in the video Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, menacing the young lovers as Big Daddy, and he was great, so the shock of finding him a powerful singer is less than it might have been.

The collection’s shocker is a 1952 murder ballad, “One Hour Ahead of the Posse.” With terror and madness, over a galloping proto-rockabilly beat, with sinuous electric-guitar accompaniment, Ives sings of how he shot his sweetheart, broke out of jail, and is heading for the border, where, if he gets across the Rio Grande before the posse catches him, he’ll be free. If it weren’t for the Anita Kerr Singers genteelly harmonizing behind him, I’d be more tempted to call it the first rock-and-roll record. It’s got the beat, it’s got electric guitar, it’s got the passion, it’s got the misogyny. But, unlike later rock murder ballads, it’s not misogyny-without-consequences. And the consequences are in Ives’s voice too. A great performance.

He doesn’t make it. He gets shot right at the river’s edge. But the ending is ambiguous, and it almost sounds to me as if, in despair and horror at what he has done, he decides to kill himself. “May the Lord have mercy on my soul.”

Ives is another case of mistaken identity. Like Carl Sandburg, he grew up poor; Ives’s parents were poor tenant farmers. But Ives and Sandburg got assimilated into middle-class culture. Their reps are middle-class corniness. There’s a lot more going on there.


I got Suspicious Activity? by The Bad Plus from the library too, on the recommendations of Devin Hurd and Kyle Gann.

I was intrigued but . . . suspicious . . . when I saw the “Theme from Chariots of Fire” listed on the disc. A great catchy yearning uplifting tune, the unacknowledged theme song of all runners-with-earphones everywhere, I worried that the Bad Plus would distort the melody, as has sometimes been the fashion when contemporary jazzers meet contemporary pop.

They don’t distort it. The let the melody sing.

And they majorly mess with the harmonies and rhythms.

It’s a true trio, with all three members contributing compositions, and the three instruments in a more-egalitarian relationship with one another than is common even in free jazz. And they’re not exactly free jazz, though they have a lot of “free” influence. The compositions are tough and beautiful, and I love love love how they can keep the melody lyrical while wailing the rhythms and timbres in fierce “freedom.” Some of the tunes are quiet too, and no matter what they’re doing, the band has a band sound, a unique style. An album for my personal pantheon -- their style and their sound gets to my internal beauty spots throughout the album, in a sustained way that few albums do. I hope to see them live some time.


More more more more more more more -- for another time.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A few weeks ago I mentioned a song my grandpa taught me, “My Sweet Hortense.” A Michigander named Michael Wozniak posted the lyrics to “Oh! My Sweet Hortense” a couple years ago -- he left me a comment letting me know. I don’t know why his blog didn’t turn up when I looked for the lyrics at Google -- probably an oversight on my part. I don’t think I want to hear the song -- the only version I have ever heard is my grandpa’s. But I’m glad to read the words -- thanks!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Technology, more than art, is the unconscious. We live in our technology as we live in air -- unconsciously. And as technology changes, we integrate it into our atmosphere until we take it for granted, as though it has always been there.

Art is aspiration. We remember idols of art -- people know Shakespeare's Kings because Shakespeare wrote about them. We remember very few idols of technology. Tech is subterranean. Like the body. Tech extends the body's capacities. I don't count my heartbeats. I don't know how this web site works.

* * *

Paul McCartney is an artist likely to be remembered many years from now. And with good reason -- the most popular songwriter and the most popular singer of the rock era, as if Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin were the same person. His gifts astound.

In the last week I have read major hype about his new album in puff pieces in both the New Yorker and the New York Times, and how Starbucks is his new record company, and today every Starbucks in the country (or the world?) would be playing his album all day. Now THAT is cultural power.

I succumbed. To the hype. I went and got an iced tea at Starbucks, and a horrible pastry (really bad!), and listened to one whole song and parts of two others. The ballad mushed me unconvincingly, but I was digging the rockers.

He's unlikely to get much traction in the rock press. For legitimate reasons -- rock is about 'tude and lyrics, and in both departments Macca lacks. He's written many good lyrics, but much more often indifferent ones. And his 'tude isn't rockin'. He's from the pop era -- he's an entertainer, an entertainer with artistic aspirations, like Sinatra or Bennett maybe, and his persona is that of an incredibly wealthy mostly cheerful person. Not rockin'.

He's a great melodist, though, and a wonderful arranger and player of many instruments, with a golden voice, and he can still put a good song together. His last album had a bunch of terrific ones, and I am curious to hear the new batch.

The coffee shop is supplanting the record store as the place to hang out. While that does not personally please me, I'm interested that the world's richest musician has joined forces with the world's richest coffee peddler. Mostly I'm impressed with McCartney's shrewdness here. Going with Starbucks seems a savvy response to changing technology and a changing market. He's taking the product to where people are buying.

He doesn't seem like an especially nice person -- and neither did Bing. They share a stylistic affinity too -- they both have a way of tossing off a song, of going through the motions, gliding on their considerable gifts -- and I believe that this element of gliding is a key to their mega-popularity. People are attracted to ease. Bing & Paul are easy singers -- they sound at ease with themselves and the world, usually.

Like Irving, he's self-taught and musically un-lettered -- he can't read a score. And like Irving he's the most popular writer of his era. But he isn't really our Irving -- he isn't as witty. But he is our Bing, and I love him and wish him well.

In music, I become an Other, and, sometimes, the senses become deranged.

The vertigo of beauty.
-- Picasso's Rimbaud

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Talk about birthdays lately -- Karen the chicken turns 10 on Monday! The toughest and smartest and meanest of birds, and also the longest-lived. My beloved spouse and I loved her twin, Natasha, who died several months ago. Natasha was sweet and friendly, nonviolent and wise. When the younger chickens were coming up, Karen would beat up on them, and Natasha would ignore them. When the younger chickens grew up, they would beat up Karen, and ignore Natasha. But Karen is made of tough stuff! More than a year ago she looked like she was on her last legs, spending a couple of days lying listlessly in a shallow pit she had dug herself. We considered putting her out of her misery. But she bounced back! Happy Birthday!

* * *

Given the talk about birthdays, today the 4-year-old said to me, “When I’m your age you’ll be dead.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but not necessarily.”

“OK,” he said, “if you’re still alive you’ll be old. When I’m the age you are now you’ll be old or dead.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

I’ll be 84, if I’m alive.

* * *

My birthday is Monday too -- 44. I had been happy to turn 43 because it’s a prime number, but 44 is nice too. When I was a kid, Mickey Stanley of the Tigers was number 44. He said he picked it because “4 for 4 was the ideal box score.” Here’s hoping for an ideal year.

(I looked it up. Mickey Stanley’s number was 24. I have no idea who -- if anybody -- said that about number 44. Hank Aaron, though not a Tiger, was number 44.)

We had a party Saturday night. Friends, food, music, drink, laughter. First people came about 4:30, last people left past 12:30.

One conversation: how the rabies vaccination can cause heart problems in the first hour or two after taking it, and luckily nothing happened to my beloved spouse after nobody warned her of that after she got a shot before traveling in the 3rd World several years ago. Someone elaborated on the story, and a few people chimed in, and it developed into a routine.

“Yeah after I got my rabies shot I went for a jog. With my ex-husband. To discuss custody issues. When we bumped into my boyfriend. Fortunately, a rabid squirrel bit me then, which made it all worthwhile.”

Maybe you had to be there. And tipsy.

* * *


Last night after the party I fell asleep on the couch. Before dragging myself to bed a couple of hours later, I checked my rounds on a couple of favorite political blogs and learned that my favorite of all, Steve Gilliard, had died at age 41. He had been profoundly ill for many weeks, and I had expected and dreaded this announcement since his family had forbidden any updates on his condition a few weeks ago. I read him daily. Smart, caustic, funny, bold -- he turned my head around. A lot of favorite writers have died in recent years -- Guy Davenport, Hugh Kenner, Ellen Willis, Edward Said (whose writing I first fell in love with in an English-language periodical I picked up while traveling for a month in Egypt in ‘99, where he wrote about Egyptian pop culture). But none has hit me as hard as Steve. And not because I met him or even corresponded with him -- I didn’t. I occasionally commented on his blog, and he may or may not have replied -- I don’t even remember. I just read him. Just about every day.

He was the most rock-and-roll of political bloggers, maybe of any blogger -- he didn’t hold anything back, he put it all out there: His brilliant and erudite (and terrifyingly pessimistic) military analysis; his caustic and astute (and sometimes overly optimistic) political commentary; his wise and incisive commentary on race and gender; favorite recipes; sports talk; TV shows & pop music; tabloid gossip; family portraits; dating advice. Dating advice! From one of the most caustic political commentators on the left! And it was the real deal: The political causticness came from love as much as the wise and humorous dating advice. That someone with such a mind could be all heart -- what a loss.

As of this writing there have been more than 315 blog tributes to Steve since he died Saturday morning. I’ve read a couple dozen, and two have stuck out: Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake was acquainted with him and writes movingly; and a woman I had never read, Shannika, never met him, and writes movingly.

With sorrow -- sorrow -- to those for whom he was an intimate friend and relative. I cried when the announcement came out that there would be no updates on his health until his coma ended. And now it has ended as I feared it would. My heart goes out.

(Photo of Steve by Lindsay Beyerstein.)

Aimee Mann is a singer and songwriter. Writing on the Op-Ed page of the Sunday New York Times today, she says that
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is her favorite record. But she never listens to it. Because its musical influence is vast and she’s burned out on it. And its lyrics, though having some nice concrete images that poetry workshops would approve, are shallow. And its music, though hugely influential, is problematic. Paul’s cheeriness is shallow and masks an underlying unhappiness, and nothing is more depressing than a brave face, especially a shallow brave face. And John’s melodies, she’s “ashamed to say,” are underwritten. She could do better! Just give her some of those songs, she’ll trick out some Lennon melody with a little more body, a little more life, not abandon it unfinished, a poor slip of an underwritten thing, as he did. She says so herself -- listening to the Beatles now is like realizing that she can beat her “own father at chess or arm-wrestling.” But it will always be her favorite record!

What an interesting shmear of Oedipal self-contradictions! I personally feel that she need not worry about having eclipsed her artistic parents -- but we all have our own perceptions, don
’t we?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The email came from a mutual friend on Thursday: Must-see TV: Bob & Angela's daughter Isabel (photo by Reuters -- a friend emailed it) would be in the Spelling Bee finals on ABC. Bob & I were housemates a million years ago, and then bandmates, and I've known Angela even longer, and even though I haven't seen them in a dozen years, Bob & I correspond occasionally, and so, yes, of course, it was Must-see.

And Isabel did great! Finished in the Top 5, spelling words that gave me brainaches just thinking about them. And during her "Behind the Spelling" short bio clip that ABC did for all the finalists, she showed off one of her favorite words, "kakistocracy" -- "government by the worst possible people." Now, she wouldn't be thinking of anybody in particular, would she? 14 years old, in 8th grade, and with poise and elan,
on prime time network TV, obliquely and totally obviously giving the Kakistocrat-in-Chief what-for. How superb and extraordinary is that?

Best of all was seeing Bob simultaneously sigh with relief and beam with pride whenever she got one right -- a particular expression I don't remember ever having seen on anybody before. And the big hugs all around when "cyanophycean" finally stumped her.

Congrats to the whole Jacobson-Woodward family!

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