Monthly Archives: March 2006

March 29, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 5


I wasn’t sure I was going to keep up with the audio component here, but it’s a nice sort of reward for myself after doing all the research, plus I’ve already received criticism on yesterday’s reading – that it didn’t sufficiently make sense of the text to a modern ear – and that’s exactly the sort of problem that I like attempting to solve. Maybe my skill at this will improve as I go. As was pointed out, Melville’s prose is both informal and convoluted, which is a tall order for reading aloud. I don’t want to resort to that annoyingly slow declamatory style you hear on most audiobooks, but I’m not enough of an actor to pull off a genuine shot at “how Ishmael talks.” I guess I’m just going for straightforwardness as best I can.

I should have said yesterday, and I say to you now – if anyone out there, friend or stranger, wants to improve on these readings, please send in your versions and I will post them in parallel. Or maybe I’ll just take down mine and put up whichever reading seems best.

Me reading (4:01).

UPDATE 5/06 – Links to reading intentionally broken. Whew.

accost, v.
7. a. To make up to and speak to; to address.
I thought this had a connotation of roughness or hostility, but it doesn’t! Well, it does now. The OED can be a little old-fashioned sometimes.

cherish, v.
7. To entertain in the mind, harbour fondly, encourage, cling to (a hope, feeling, design, etc.)
OED says this is the most common sense of the word, and that
1. trans. To hold dear, treat with tenderness and affection; to make much of.
Obs. or arch
which comes as news to me. In any case, I ended up looking this up because the connotation here is “cling to” but not particularly “fondly,” whereas fondness and attention seem to me implicit in modern uses of “cherish.”

skylark, v.
1. intr. a. To frolic or play; to play tricks; to indulge in rough sport or horse-play. In early use chiefly Naut.

backward, a.
6. a. Turning or hanging back from action; disinclined to advance or make advances; reluctant, averse, unwilling, loath, chary; shy, bashful.

in proper person
In his (or one’s) own person.

spend and be spent
From 2 Corinthians 12:15

think, v.
12. d. intr. with for (of, on), after as or than, and with the preposition at the end of the clause: To expect, suppose. (Cf. look for)

chief mate
Exactly the same as “first mate.”

sea carpenter
under carpenter, OED gives
3. Naut. ‘An officer appointed to examine and keep in order the hull of a wooden ship, and all her appurtenances’ (Smyth Sailor’s Word-bk.)

sea cooper
under cooper, OED gives
1. b. On board ship: One who looks to the repair of casks and other vessels.

There’s no equivalent entry for “blacksmith” but, having my initial suspicions confirmed by the above, at this point I’m willing to say that I know exactly what a sea blacksmith does.

A man who takes care of a ship when the crew is absent from it.

bosky, a.
Consisting of or covered with bushes or underwood; full of thickets, bushy.
but also be aware, just for the echo, of the second entry,
bosky, a. dial. or slang
Somewhat the worse for drink, tipsy.

satin wood
The wood of the Indian tree Chloroxylon Swietenia and of several W. Indian trees esp. Fagara flava; also, the similar yellowish wood of any of several African or Australian trees, esp. Daphnandra micrantha or Zanthoxylum brachyacanthum; also, any of the trees producing this timber; the colour of this timber.

Andes’ western slope
Is some kind of dramatic stratification visible (say, from the ocean)? Or is he just saying that the slope creates several climate zones in close proximity, but not that they’re visible as such? I’ve never been and I’m not in the mood to dig really hard in search of I’m-not-sure-what, so please write in if you think you know exactly what he means.

John Ledyard (1751-1789), American explorer who travelled with Captain Cook and later attempted to pass through Russia and enter North America by crossing the Bering Strait, but never made the crossing, though he did traverse much of Siberia.

Mungo Park
Mungo Park (1771-1806), Scottish explorer of Africa, who eventually died there.

that sort of thing is to be had anywhere
Not clear to me. Is he saying that social refinement may be learned anywhere, whereas exploratory adventures require travel? Or is he saying that the sort of un-refining travel experienced by Ledyard and Park is the sort of travel that, for the most part, one finds anywhere (contrary to the aforementioned popular belief that most travel is socially edifying)? Or something else?

board, v.
besides the obvious meanings, there’s also
4. fig. To approach, ‘make up to’, accost, address, ‘assail’; to make advances to.

1. A pen or enclosure for sheep.

Green Mountains
In Vermont. I thought maybe there might be others that I should know about.

i &middot ii &middot 1 &middot 2 &middot 3 &middot 4

March 29, 2006

Sibley 3/28/06

So the day after I decide to start posting my midi junk, Sibley dumps a huge batch of scores on me. All by Rebikov. Well, they also posted a bunch of transcriptions of, I think, Algerian traditional music, but I’ve exempted that from midification because it amounted to maybe an hour’s worth of monophonic stuff that makes no sense on the piano.

Also, Sibley’s publication dates on these items seem generally to be wrong, so the following are my determinations based on the plate numbers in the scores.

In addition to my standing disclaimer about sight-reading, I also wasn’t particularly on the ball when I made these. I could go back now that I feel more alert and improve them, but why? I would think of these more as, like, tiny lo-res pictures of obscure art that I took with a camera-phone and am posting here in the hopes that people might be intrigued by what they discern through the fuzz, in which case they can seek out art books or go the museum themselves. My camera-phone was a little blurrier than usual today.

Also, I was just listening to a couple of these and it seems like something funny happens with the pedal every now and then, where it comes in a second later than I played it and loses the note it’s supposed to hold. I don’t think that happens that often when I’m playing. I’m not sure what’s causing that but I’ll look into it.

scores posted 5/25/06:

Vladimir Rebikov:
Conte de la Princesse et du Roi des grenouilles, Op. 36 (1906) bad midi (7:38)

Dans le bosquet de roses, Op.33 No. 6 (1914) bad midi (1:38)

Souvenir, Op.33 No. 5 (1914) bad midi (2:17)

Trois miniatures, Op.33 (1905) bad midi (4:19)

Feuilles d’automne, Op. 29 (1904) bad midi (7:05)

Scènes bucoliques, Op. 28 (1904) bad midi (7:06)

Dans leur Pays, Op. 27 (1904) bad midi (8:14)

Aspirer et Atteindre: 3me tableau musical-psychologique, Op. 25 (1903) bad midi (16:55)

Chansons du coeur: 2me tableau musical-psychologique, Op. 24 (1903) bad midi (17:53)

A la brume, Op. 23 (1904) bad midi (7:46)

Ésclavage et Liberté: tableau musical psychologique, Op. 22 (1903) bad midi (17:39)

Here’s a bit of the Grove article about Rebikov (1866-1920):

Rebikov’s artistic strivings find parallels with contemporary trends in the symbolist movement; this is demonstrated by his use of sources from the literature and art popular in those years. … At the end of 1900 Rebikov came forward with his manifesto on ‘musical psychography’, which he based on Tolstoy’s thesis that ‘music is the shorthand of the feelings’. According to this principle, his musical language achieved a great deal of freedom from the pre-established norms. From around this time he became increasingly experimental; this elicited conflicting reactions from his contemporaries. Rebikov was among the pioneers of whole-tone music in Europe, and frequently made use of parallel chordal movement and quartal harmonies.

Taken as a whole, his work strikes me as fundamentally unsatisfying, but there are nonetheless many intriguing aspects. A careful selection from the short pieces could probably create a lovely album of oddities. Op.36 was truly bizarro, but I genuinely enjoyed at least one movement apiece from Opp. 23, 27, 28, 29, and 33. To my ears, he does “gentle” far better than “troubled.” It’s all fairly uneasy (and romantic/psychologique), under which circumstances a lighter touch goes farther.

The three big “tableaux” are sort of like Tod und Verklärung filtered through Rimsky-Korsakov (and, mildly, Scriabin). They’re much too broad in expression to pull off anything particularly psychologically nuanced, though the forms are quirky enough that it’s clear they’re trying. And it’s not as though Strauss really did this well either, for all his fame. The most damning thing about these pieces is that they play like orchestral reductions but don’t seem ever to have been scored for orchestra – they’re just awkward (and occasionally impossible), unpianistic, pseudo-symphonic writing. And what’s gloriously vulgar in a romantic orchestra is downright silly on a piano. Given Rebikov’s pointedly peculiar later works, also apparently arising from his interest in musical experimentation and in psychology, I’m sort of surprised that the seemingly adventurous conceptions behind these pieces didn’t give rise to something less, um, bland. Of course, we’re moving backward through his output; every successive piece seems more conservative, which doesn’t reflect well on the composer. Maybe if I knew his earlier work I’d see Op. 22 as a breakthrough.

March 28, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 4


New feature! Homemade audio (8:08), performed immediately upon finishing the list below.

UPDATE 5/06 – Links to reading intentionally broken. Ugh.

particoloured, a.
1. Partly of one colour and partly of another or others; variegated; esp. (of a dog or other animal) having a coat of with two or more colours in distinct patches.

slippering, vbl. n.
Beating with a slipper.

The COLLAR of a horse.
I mean, I assumed – but it wasn’t an item I was able immediately to picture.

pikestaff, n.
1. A staff or walking stick, esp. a walking stick with a metal point at the lower end, similar to an alpenstock. Also fig. Now rare except in set phrases (see sense 2).
2. In proverbial phrases, as the type of something plain, straight, or obvious, as stiff as a pikestaff, clear as a pikestaff, to call a pikestaff a pikestaff, etc.

toilet, n.
5. a. The action or process of dressing, or, more recently, of washing and grooming.
“Toilette” is just an alternate spelling, though OED tells me that it usually takes the frenchified pronunciation when spelled this way. Melville uses both spellings in the course of this chapter.

beaver, n.
3. a. A hat made of beaver’s fur, or some imitation of it; formerly worn by both sexes, but chiefly by men.
Just checking. Basically, this just means a nice hat.

alt. spelling of trousers, of course.

go-off, colloq.
1. The action or time of going off; a starting, commencement.

stave, v.
Has no meaning in the OED that can account for the current usage in the phrase “staving about.” If you search for “staving about” you’ll find this sentence and only this sentence. On context it’s clear enough, and seems to fit the sound of the word. But as far as I can tell it doesn’t mean anything particular.

A table intended for the centre of a room, formerly often used for the display of books, albums, etc.

stock, n.
IV. The more massive portion of an instrument or weapon; usually, the body or handle, to which the working part is attached.
29. The handle (of a whip, fishing-rod, etc.).

Rogers’s best cutlery
Here’s what I can figure out. Joseph Rogers, of Sheffield, was a major cutlery works and the manufacturer of many pocketknives imported and sold in the US. This reference, as well as another one in Melville’s White Jacket seem to confirm that “Rogers’s Best” was a related brand-name or advertising phrase. What he means here is not entirely clear to me, however. Perhaps – I’m making this up – perhaps “Rogers’s Best Cutlery” knives were known or advertised to be sharp enough to shave with … or perhaps “Rogers’s Best Cutlery” is simply being used as a jokingly genteel term for the harpoon. I don’t know – the complete solution to this one seems to be eluding my Google skills. Write in if you figure it out!

pilot jacket, n.
A short, double-breasted, woollen overcoat, formerly commonly worn by sailors.

i &middot ii &middot 1 &middot 2 &middot 3

March 27, 2006

This week at the Sibley Music Library

I’ve subscribed to be notified whenever the Eastman School of Music posts new items to their online collection of rare musical scores. All kinds of stuff, most of it heavily obscure and more or less forgotten for the past 100 years, turns up here. Much of it is for piano solo, and I usually try to play through it all. Today I decided I’d let my computer record me as I zipped through the most recent batch of pieces, and here’s the result, in midi format.

My sightreading isn’t bad for an amateur, but passable sightreading still makes for terrible listening. These files are full of serious mistakes and bad choices; even the accurate parts are generally clumsy and lifeless. No, seriously, read that again so that you truly understand: these files are a mess. Why then am I posting this?

I have a childish compulsion to share the things I find interesting with anyone I can grab, and I am able to imagine, naively, that by pointing readers of this site toward these scores, I am also passing on part of the interest they hold for me. Playing through them is the way I make these scores accessible to myself, so of course I have to make my rough realizations of the music available if I want people to experience what I experienced.

This is all silly, I know. As with the Moby-Dick business elsewhere on this site, I understand that nobody will get interested in something just because I am interested in it in a noisy way; and yet I also understand that some tiny portion of my interest does in fact come through. Basically, what I really want to do is communicate something of my interest in this music (and Moby-Dick, etc. etc.) but I don’t feel like taking the time to work out that communication. So I’m just taking the easy (and ineffective) way out and dumping “what I did” on the web, where it will be worth whatever it happens to be worth.

The real reason I am posting this stuff goes back to my original intent when I started using this webspace – I wanted to turn outward (and thus legitimize) the stuff I found myself doing with my time, which would otherwise disappear into my computer. So that’s what this is. Something I did and why not. Maybe I’ll keep doing this for later installments from the Sibley Music Library. Maybe not. If anyone out there actually wants to chat about any of the pieces there/here, I’d be delighted.

scores posted 5/25/06:

Ethelbert Nevin:
May in Tuscany, suite, Op. 21 (1895). bad midi (18:18)

Vladimir Rebikov:
Trois Idylles, Op. 50 (1910) bad midi (5:48)

Chanson blanches, Op. 48 (1910) bad midi (4:52)

Dans la forêt, Op. 46 (1910) bad midi (6:57)

Une fête, suite, Op. 38 (1907) bad midi (3:50)

Tableaux pour enfants, Op.37 (1900) bad midi (5:35)

Brief thoughts: Nevin’s suite is exactly in keeping with his other works that I’ve heard. I mean, exactly. I get the sense that his talent was pretty narrow. The frothier stuff here has that same appeal as “Narcissus” – I particularly enjoyed the singing nightingale movement (is it famous? have I heard it before? it seemed familiar) – but the more lyrical romantic stuff falls awfully flat. I don’t know what to make of that plodding slow movement – seems like he was trying to do something bold and Lisztian but couldn’t pull it off. The “naive” last movement, on the other hand, mostly works. His melodies aren’t amazing but on the whole, they have more charm and grace than those of the average salon composer.

These pieces show Rebikov doodling with whole-tone and modal scales in primitive ways that Debussy, Stravinsky and others had already gone well beyond. But there’s something endearing, to me, about the simplistic spirit of experimentation behind these tiny pieces. Like, say, Cowell, they have that quality of being discoveries put to eager use rather than mature art. What’s delightful is that he seems overwhelmed by the novelty of things that don’t seem to have overwhelmed anyone else. The bitonality and diatonic clusters in Op. 50 are treated like strange, exotic beasts, and playing through the music, I was able to rediscover some of the awe in these timeworn devices. Even the children’s suite, Op.37, seems like it’s going to be a standard turn-of-the-century trifle, and turns out to be a seriously wacky assemblage (check out the clowning “Piano Lesson” movement). I was reminded of the early Edison films, whose charm lies in the fact that they are absolutely astounded by their own dumb achievements.

The whole-tone stuff is the weakest, and some of the “white-key” stuff seems like a childish impression of Scriabin (in exactly the way that most Antheil is a childish impression of Stravinsky), but there’s definitely something intriguing about how raw these works are. In this respect, I particularly liked Opp. 50 and 38. Looks like Sibley’s working their way through a collection of Rebikov’s work, and more seems to be on the way.

March 27, 2006

Oskar Fischinger: Optical Etudes

This was a program of short films that, as I look at the date, ought to have come before the items above, chronologically. Probably before my entry about The Tattooed Potato, too. Oh well. Anyway.

I had seen many of these, but not all of them, before, a few years ago at another screening (and a few in some very low-quality files online), but this was a rare opportunity – plus I wanted Beth to see them. I can’t seem to find the program – and it wasn’t quite the lineup promised in the press release linked above – so, thankfully, I can’t/don’t have to address each film separately. Many of the individual films shown, especially the earlier items, were experiments in the rawest sense of the word – fragments (or, sometimes, extended loops) without much form (form through time, that is).

Basically, my feelings about Oskar Fischinger are that his visual ideas are wonderfully obvious – seeing one of his films for the first time, you think, “ah, this sort of thing,” as though you’ve always been aware that it existed, and this particular execution of it is just a historical detail. I suppose I could say that this reveals the ways that Fischinger’s work has been quietly and broadly influential, that it feels familiar because we’ve encountered its offspring – but I actually think it speaks to something more interesting than influence; I think this work elicits a response of “of course there’s this” because the particular visual elements Fischinger chose – zooming arcs and expanding planes, gliding circles, bouncing bars, etc. etc. – these speak at some primal level to the way we conceive of kinetics. I’ve seen (and attempted to produce) other work in the same vein – visual abstract movement inspired by music – and I can assure you that not everything connects the way most of Fischinger’s imagery does – not just any bunch of dots rhythmically boinging around seems as inevitable as his generally do.

And, for all that, that’s also one my reservations about Fischinger’s work – it doesn’t always connect. His spirit of experimentation seems to have prevented him from ever really nailing it – to me, each film has a couple concepts in it that don’t quite pop. His moire-patterns and rippling spirograph vortices, for example, are so much less communicative and interesting than his circles and curves, and yet he keeps trying to find a place for them in films where they end up being distracting and frustrating.

My other major reservation about these films is the way they handle their music. At some level, Fischinger was obviously very sensitive to the nature of musical flux – bursting or accumulating or contracting or approaching, etc. etc. But the ideas he created in this visual language, which is immediately recognizable as musical, seldom seem to work completely in sync with the music they purport to accompany. It’s as though Fischinger couldn’t help but let the visuals order themselves according to their own principles – music-like principles, yes, but not necessarily the music of the soundtrack. The little arcs and circles and whatnot frequently do not illustrate or serve the music; they perform a duet with it. I don’t think this is quite what he had in mind, since quite often the visual and the music will seem to line up exactly and speak together – and it’s thrilling! – but then at the next instant, the visuals have begun to do something that’s lovely in itself but seems to have its own agenda. That offers a different kind of satisfaction, and I wish I didn’t have to switch between them over the course of the film.

This is probably why my favorite of his films, by far, is Motion Painting No. 1 (1947), which, though it has a Brandenburg Concerto playing throughout, is not a “music” piece, and in fact employs a different and simpler sort of time-logic, one with much richer implications. The film is, as titled, a painting, one which is continuously painted and repainted. Nothing “moves” and nothing is “taken away”; Fischinger simply adds more and more paint, simultaneously adding to and covering up that which came before. The process, as it plays out, is absolutely abstract and yet full of possible significance. My first association is with the process of pencil doodling, which in its purest, least self-conscious form, is improvisatory and additive. These parallel lines, what do they demand? How about some concentric circles? After a certain point the concentric circles reach capacity and it suddenly becomes opportune to add radii. Etcetera. Everyone who has ever doodled has a taste and talent for making these decisions, but the pomp of “art” often prevents us from feeling that it’s appropriate to bring these instincts to bear in thinking about abstract art, though in fact they ought to be our first point of access. Watching Motion Painting, that identification is immediate, and we experience the joy of deciding how many circles is enough circles, or we savor the irreducibly abstract experience of a number of circles that is slightly beyond “enough”; truly aesthetic thought, in the purest sense. This kind of thought is implicit in abstract painting, but here it plays out openly, and everyone is involved. The film almost teaches us how to think unpretentiously about abstraction.*

But as I said, the implications go well beyond that. The painting is always constructing itself, like a doodle, toward being a static, completed aesthetic whole, but that process is never, can never be, consummated. As a painting, it implicitly strives to be “finished,” but the only possible finished state is the obliteration that comes with the end of the film; the journey has been the point – and yet the journey was a process of construction. This paradox of purpose has a deep philosophical resonance. In the film’s coda, the processes of construction and destruction accelerate until they are indistinguishable from movement; as the scale of time shifts, we feel the poignant futility of the process, even as its beauty, captured on film, plays out before us. The phases of the abstraction are the cycles of life, of history: endless birth and endless death synthesized with the roving forward movement of a striving consciousness. A fundamental artistic vision, encapsulated in such a simply constructed work. It is forcefully simple.

Steve Reich wrote about the value of hearing “music as a process” and his better music has always given me some of that sort of pleasure; its beauty is not strictly musical but rather the beauty of the natural world, of mathematics. It is not a particularly human beauty, and though I’m very appreciative of the taste Steve Reich had to exercise in order to construct those forms and surfaces, I don’t really ascribe the beauty in his music to him. His music is to me like the photographer’s art – the art of delivering, extracting, or summoning beauty from the world rather than attempting it oneself. This is the generally the way with art attempting mathematical beauty; the purity is the point and so it’s best tapped at the source. Motion Painting No. 1 offers that beauty of natural processes, and of time, but is, to me, far deeper and more moving because it is also inescapably human – it is a performance of nature rather than a reproduction of it. And in these senses, it is in fact very well matched with the Bach that accompanies it, which in its own way is a sort of superhuman immortal order as conceived by a mortal. The beauty of Bach is its combination of the worlds of God and man, the infinitely perfect surrounding and sustaining the emotional and finite. But Bach’s music is sometimes too devout for me, too ready to believe that those two kinds of order belong with one another. Motion Painting No. 1 is the same combination but, in a sense, more arbitrary, more mortal. The infinite aspect is provided by Bach’s music, and by the quasi-geometric designs, and most of all by the inexorable forward movement of the film and of time. But the geometric designs are imperfect, hand-drawn attempts, and everything that emerges over the course of the film dies.

Then again it’s just a bunch of shapes. Doodle-y shapes, no less. It seems odd for me to feel so moved by these shapes, and maybe I ought to be saying that this reaction is probably peculiar to me. But I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it’s wrong to ascribe profundity to a work of art that uses the simplest means and leaves the depth to play out in the mind of the spectator. And then again, it’s simplistic for me even to feel the need to justify and ascribe that profundity to the art rather than to my own thought process; the art experience is, of course, always the result of the combination of work and audience, and even if an experience is more audience than artist, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in deciding how to value the work, I tend to want to decide how much it brought to the table; a kaleidoscope may be beautiful and thought-provoking but it brings little of its own, and it seems important to me to recognize that if I’m going to respond to it like this. Then again maybe that’s just a prejudice I should get past; I’m really not sure. Maybe the fixation on “value” is misguided. Anyway, this is a whole other discussion and maybe I’ll address it again whenever I finally get around to talking about the “Unseen Cinema” films and say some more about Portrait of a Young Man, which created an experience that seemed profound to me despite being almost entirely dependent upon the photographic method mentioned above.

A music professor of mine once gave a pre-concert lecture (that I missed), the gist of which was (I gathered, or perhaps simply imagined based on scraps) that in order to engage with a work of music, the audience must bring its own “compositional” opinions (of the “how many circles is enough circles” sort) into play; that asking “what would I do next?” and answering it with these sorts of instincts goes a long way toward making the meaning of a “difficult” work accessible. You know, maybe I completely made up that that’s what his lecture was about, but for some reason, real or not, I’m ascribing this idea to him; and I agree with it, possibly because I invented it.

March 27, 2006

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)

by J.K. Rowling

This is book 3. As I write this, we’re in the middle of the fourth book, so once again I am inclined to see this in terms of its standing compared to its neighbors. It was far better than the second book, which was ill-planned and generally lifeless, but still not quite as attuned to the potential in the characters as the fourth book. Whereas the fourth book seems like an actual attempt to let the world breathe on its own, Prisoner of Azkaban was another shot at that puzzle of sequel-writing, albeit with much more inspired solutions than Chamber of Secrets. Bringing in characters and intrigues from Harry’s parents’ generation was in principle a smart move, although J.K. seems to have found ways of distributing only some of the back-story through the book and then dumped the rest on us in a big clumsy pile at the end. This is a recurring problem for her, and one that even when she does it well, I am aware that she is “solving.” That was unfortunately how the book often felt: like a series of solved writing problems. The seams were in the right places, but they were still on the outside.

I liked the shameless “clue” in the form of a top that spins when there is a bad guy nearby. She sets it spinning twice because she’s so proud of her idea for who the bad guy should be. And I’ll grant her that it was a cute idea, although it doesn’t totally make sense. That’s another problem for J.K. – she comes up with something clever, realizes there are objections, and then puts in awkward “okay but then how?” dialogue in an attempt to iron out the objections before our eyes. “But wait, how could he have been there if he wasn’t born yet?” “You see, Harry, he must have used a calendar inversion spell.” “Oh, I see!” This sort of thing is fair game for the nerds to bicker over at recess, but it drags down the book into feeling like an exam that she’s just barely squeaking past.

I liked that the Back to the Future DVDs (again with this?) included a list of frequent objections to the logic of the film, with the creators gamely attempting to justify everything. That’s exactly where that sort of thing belongs. We want to hear the answers, but only so that we don’t have to feel that the questions were actually worth asking. The movies themselves are better for not addressing the questions. J.K. should have just stuck with whatever stuff made for the best drama and then distributed the fine print from her website or, at worst, in her next book. This is going to be an even worse problem in book 5, if I recall.

March 27, 2006

Trapped In the Closet Chapters 1-12 (Unrated Version) (2005)

written by R. Kelly
directed by R. Kelly and Jim Swaffield

I’m not up on these things so I hadn’t heard of this prior to seeing it, and I think that was probably for the best, because it meant the impact was maximized. It seems like this has gotten sort of popular among non-R. Kelly fans because of how phenomenally, shockingly goofy it is. I enjoyed it. Briefly, for those of you who, like me, have absolutely no clue what’s going on in the world of pop music (or whatever this counts as): R. Kelly wrote this meandering thing for one of his albums, wherein he sing-narrates a scatterbrained quasi-story full of “surprises” over an endless, oddly emotional vamp. Then they filmed it exactly, creating a fully-produced world in which R. Kelly’s voice is coming out of everyone’s mouth while they go through the motions of a dreamily arbitrary series of events. The short attention span and stunted imagination of the writer are apparent at every turn; his effort to create a seamy, melodramatic world of deception and tension is tangibly hopeless – the characters pace around a small set agonizing over incoherent nonsense, caught in the grip of some idiot god, while the slow-mo poignant dream vamp rolls on underneath them. The overall effect is unique, and in the first few minutes I was thinking “Wow, this is a new, powerful weirdness.” Not least because there was obviously an element of utter trash at work, but it wasn’t clear at what level – was it all some kind of irony? The intensity of my initial response was in great part because it wasn’t clear how weird the thing was intended to be – did they or didn’t they know what they were doing? Without a sense of the mind behind a work, you’re forced to engage with the surface as it stands, and in this case the surface was really weird.

But after watching all 12 episodes it became a lot clearer where it was coming from, and I know what to compare it to – it was like reading the stories in the yearly compendium of student writing from my elementary school. It was clearly assembled with all the distractable gusto of a fourth-grader, the type who likes to punctuate his crazy stories with characters saying “this is crazy!” And really, what’s the craziest thing there is? R. Kelly or any fourth-grader can tell you that it’s a midget. Yes, there’s a midget. But it’s something apart from and above fourth-grade writing because a) it’s sung, lazily, and b) it’s a fully realized production on DVD!

On the “behind the scenes” feature(tte), we see R. on set getting worked up about how exciting the whole process has been, and saying that he just made up all this shit and now here he is and there’s an actual midget there! So true; watching it, we’re all equally blown away.

Another thought – the darkly sentimental quality of the musical vamp wraps the whole thing up in its sound and makes it seem as though it should be coming from somewhere, with something human to say. I think it’s the tension between that promise and the overwhelming inability of the material to justify it that makes the thing compelling. R. Kelly, as the vaguely tortured protagonist – or, when he forgets that he’s the protagonist, as the narrator (a second R. Kelly pops out of another closet in order to justify the switch to third person) – personifies this yearning, implicit in the music, to overcome the utter idiocy of, essentially, himself. The terribleness of the material manages to seem like an existential riddle, and because of the rolling waves of the music, R. Kelly seems, in a distant vague way, to be aware of it. But I’m sure he’s not. From the extra features on the DVD, he seemed like an out-and-out moron.

In writing this I realize that I’d actually LOVE to see attentive, faithful productions of stories written by fourth graders. Maybe that would make a great opera. On which note: I know R. thought this had some relationship to opera, but it didn’t. Its closest musical kin was the self-narrating improvised nonsense song that lots of people spin out in indulgent company, or more often, when they’re alone.

March 15, 2006

LA Streets

Video game music. By me. I didn’t even have a Nintendo, but I think my parents’ instinct on this point proved to be correct – the secondhand fumes were, clearly, more than strong enough. Of course, I’ve gotten to play all those games more recently in emulated form, but I assure you the present piece comes from deeper memories.

I could yammer about what it is that’s so intriguing and enveloping about Nintendo games – I’m tempted, and I probably will someday – but that’s really beside the point here.

I guess this is a tribute? parody? in addition to being a symptom of my childhood fascinations. It was calibrated solely to amuse Beth and as such is not exactly a coherent genre piece. It’s an amalgam of elements from several different archetypes. While I was writing it, I joked that the game was called “LA Streets,” picturing a Double Dragonesque setup starring two cops, but that’s wrong on several counts. First of all, a fighting game wouldn’t specify a locale in its title like that because it could never live up to it over the course of many levels; they’d want to make it international or have it go indoors – “LA Streets” is more likely to be a racing game. Second of all, though the initial buildup suggests the gritty world of street toughs and/or cops, the opening fanfare and the upper figuration in the A section clearly indicate that this game takes place in outer space, whereas the chord progression and counter-fanfares in the B section suggests that this game has fantasy elements. In other words, fireballs are involved. So obviously “LA Streets” is the wrong name for this game. But that’s what it’s called.*

Furthermore, the loop is clearly too short. A third section (or a repeat of the B section) would be necessary to turn this into title-screen music, and even more if it’s in-game music. Each time you start a new guy, by the way, a fast version of that opening fanfare leads you into the level music. Just wanted to let you know.

The “square waveform” lead instrument is in honor of the Commodore 64 of my youth, but the rest of the instruments are just choices off my synth that amused me, not all of them historically realistic. Plus there are way too many voices going at once for a Nintendo. I think that thing could handle, like, three voices plus percussion.

I am vaguely aware that there are whole “communities” of people out on the internet making up music like this and all sorts of other crap to indulge their Nintendo demons, but, for what it’s worth, I made this in isolation to amuse Beth alone, and the idea of bonding with anyone over this sort of thing fills me with trepidation.

That said, I continue to believe that hanging my not-particularly-dirty laundry out in public is a worthwhile inner exercise for me. So enjoy.

* On the other hand, one of the odd charms of Nintendo games (I said I wasn’t going to do this!) was that they tried to instill any scenario with the same hyperactive Japanese sense of !!! excitement and !!! power !!! … so it’s actually quite likely that a game about thugs punching each other would be presented as though it were epic and magical. That’s actually the joke here, isn’t it. Yes.

March 12, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 3


f. Of stationary objects: Scattered or arranged irregularly. Of a road, tract of country: Winding irregularly, having an irregular outline. Of a house, town, etc.: Built irregularly and uncompactly.

2. Panel-work of oak or other wood, used to line the walls of an apartment.

squitchy, a. rare.
This word is one of the things I remember most clearly from my high school pseudo-reading of Moby-Dick. I always assumed Melville made it up, but there it is in the OED. Of course, he still might have made it up – their only quotation for “squitchy” is this sentence. The only other use I can find is in another work by Melville, a short piece from a couple years later: Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! Or, The Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano (1853), where, incidentally, it appears in close proximity to “hypos.” I get the impression that Melville liked to fill out his voice with words that felt contemporary and low, and those sorts of words have dated oddly – it’s hard to tell whether “squitchy” sounded whimsical, as it does now, or just earthy. If a present-day writer used the word “shitty,” I’d know that all he was going for was a lazy vernacular feel, whereas 150 years from now my research would probably tell me that he was being incredibly coarse. So who knows how silly the word “squitchy” sounded back when he wrote it? All I know is, it’s silly now.

distracted, ppl. a.
4. Much confused or troubled in mind; having, or showing, great mental disturbance or perplexity.
5. Deranged in mind; out of one’s wits; crazed, mad, insane. Now rare in literal sense, exc. in such expressions as ‘like one distracted’.

founder, v.
6. intr. Of a vessel: To fill with water and sink, go to the bottom.

welter, v.
3. Of a ship: To roll to and fro (on the waves).

with a vast handle
I am confused about this description. A scythe does not cut a segment in the grass that is itself shaped like a scythe. Is he describing a weapon shaped like a scythe, with a long straight handle and a curved blade? Or is he describing a spear with a long curved handle (what good would that be?). He seems to be describing both the blade and the handle as curved. I can’t picture this thing.

Cape of Blanco
Well, this either means off the coast of Oregon or Mauritania. I have to assume it’s Mauritania, if only because that seems to have been part of the typical whaling voyage, whereas I don’t get the impression they ever ended up in the north Pacific. I expect as the book progresses I’ll get much more certain of this sort of thing.

cockpit, n.
3. a. Naut. The after part of the orlop deck of a man-of-war; forming ordinarily the quarters for the junior officers, and in action devoted to the reception and care of the wounded.
which necessitates looking up
orlop, n.
1. A platform covering the hold of a ship and forming the lowest deck, esp. in a ship of more than three decks. Also orlop deck.

I assume this means anchored by one corner, but since real ships don’t exactly have corners and it doesn’t clearly mean anything about the inn itself, I’m not confident. My best guess is that this is just meant to describe the way that the building is shaking so much that it seems as though it is only fixed in one corner. I don’t really know. Help.

goggle, v.
2. intr. = GOBBLE
He probably also wants some coloration borrowed from the other sense of “goggling,” too. It’s lively alliteration and probably not meant to indicate anything too clear. But I thought it was worth mentioning this, which seems to be the primary meaning, no? Or does he just mean that the glasses don’t sit flat on the bar?

footpad. Obs. exc. Hist.
A highwayman who robs on foot.

In New Bedford? Unclear to me whether this is 12 cents, 5 cents, or something else. 5 cents would seem reasonable based on context but I can’t find a reference source to confirm this for me. Well, Horace Mann says it was 16⅔ cents. But that seems like a lot for a glass wherefrom you could also buy only a penny’s-worth. Help.

Alternate spelling for “gulp.”

Alternate spelling for “scrimshander,” which is apparently an alternate for “scrimshaw,” though OED would have it that the scrimshander is the man who does the scrimshaw.

avast, phr. Naut.
Hold! stop! stay! cease!
For etymology, OED gives “[prob. a worn-down form of Du. hou’vast, houd vast, hold fast]”

settle, n.
3. spec. A long wooden bench, usually with arms and a high back (often extending to the ground), and having a locker or box under the seat. Cf. LANGSETTLE.
b. A bench or seat in a boat.

winding-sheet, n.
1. A sheet in which a corpse is wrapped for burial; a shroud.
2. A mass of solidified drippings of grease clinging to the side of a candle, resembling a sheet folded in creases, and regarded in popular superstition as an omen of death or calamity.

fain, a and adv.
2. Const. to with inf. Glad under the circumstances; glad or content to take a certain course in default of opportunity for anything better, or as the lesser of two evils.
b. This passes gradually into the sense: Necessitated, obliged.

monkey jacket, n.
1. A short close-fitting jacket, esp. as worn by sailors.
And under etymology: “According to E. C. Brewer Dict. Phrase & Fable (1870) s.v., the jacket is so called because it has ‘no more tail than a monkey, or, more strictly speaking, an ape’.”

A heavy over-coat worn by coachmen on the box, or by those riding outside a coach.

direful, a.
Fraught with dire effects; dreadful, terrible.

1. The popular name of various delphinoid cetaceans, having a high falcate dorsal fin and a blunt rounded head, and remarkable for the spouting and blowing which accompanies their movements.
Basically, either a killer whale or the Risso’s Dolphin.

offing, n.
1. Naut. a. The part of the sea visible from the shore that is the most distant, or beyond anchorage.
b. A position at a distance from a shore; distance from a shore. Also in extended use. Freq. in to make (or gain, secure, etc.) an offing.
2. In extended and fig. use. in the offing: nearby, at hand; imminent; likely to happen in the near future.

It’s not clear to me where or how he “seed her reported,” but the gist is that this morning the Grampus was known to be on its way in to shore. Was it that it was sighted in the literal “offing” or just reported as being forthcoming on the day’s schedule in some sense? And in either case, reported by whom? Why would he have “seed” it rather than heard it? This guy isn’t watching the horizon himself, right?

In any case, meaning 1.b. isn’t relevant here, but I’m including it anyway because it comes up later in this same chapter, when Ishmael makes a “good offing” towards sleep.

watch coat
Not in OED! My online sources indicate that it is essentially the same as a “greatcoat,” which OED just has as
A large heavy overcoat; a top-coat.
but the illustrations in the link above pretty much cleared this up already.

6. a. A long woollen scarf worn round the throat as a protection from cold.

Not a word! Melville nonetheless uses it in White-Jacket, but there more literally to mean
darned, ppl. a.
1. Mended by darning.
I guess here he must mean that the scarves are so old as to have stitching on them where they’ve been mended. That makes perfect and rather obvious sense now that I’ve thought it out, but it didn’t at first.

bears from Labrador
Well, there are bears in Labrador. And it’s cold there. Does this have further meaning?

wake, n.
3. A course, or general line of direction, that a ship has taken, or is to take.

brimmer, n.
2. A brimming cup or goblet.

catarrh, n.
3. Inflammation of a mucous membrane; usually restricted to that of the nose, throat, and bronchial tubes, causing increased flow of mucus, and often attended with sneezing, cough, and fever; constituting a common ‘cold’.

weather side
1. Naut. The windward side (of a vessel, etc.).
2. The side (e.g. of a building, a tree) that is most exposed to injury from weather.

An insulated mass of floating ice; an island-like ice-field; an extensive iceberg.

arrant, a.
3. Notorious, manifest, downright, thorough-paced, unmitigated.

toper Now chiefly literary.
One who topes or drinks a great deal; a hard drinker; a drunkard.

A partner in a business who takes no share in the actual working of it.
This is potentially misleading since Ishmael is currently keeping his eye out for his literal sleeping-partner. Is the echo significant? I can’t see how it would be, but I also can’t see Melville being unaware of it.

1. Hydraulic Engin. A water-tight enclosure used for obtaining a dry foundation for bridges, piers, etc.; usually constructed of two rows of piles with clay packed between them, extending above high-water mark; the water being pumped out so as to leave the enclosure dry.
b. Also a water-tight structure fixed to a ship’s side, for making repairs below the water-line.

Alleganian Ridge
Presumably the Alleghenies in what is now West Virginia.

his linen or woollen
If he’s talking about the sheets as he would seem to be, why would he attribute their degree of fineness to the harpooneer? Maybe he’s not, just their degree of tidiness.

B. as adv. = PLAGUILY. Usually indicating a degree of some quality that troubles one by its excess; but sometimes humorous, or merely forcibly intensive. colloq.

eider down
1. The small soft feathers from the breast of the eider duck.

brown study
A state of mental abstraction or musing: ‘gloomy meditations’ (J.); ‘serious reverie, thoughtful absent-mindedness’ (Webster); now esp. an idle or purposeless reverie.
Etymology: [app. originally from BROWN in sense of ‘gloomy’; but this sense has been to a great extent forgotten.]

steal a march
Gain an advantage over. Apparently: by doing something before the other can.

brown, a.
1. b. fig. Gloomy, serious. See BROWN STUDY.

A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.

Mt. Hecla
Mt. Hekla, volcano in Iceland, which erupted after 60 years of dormancy in 1845.

Not a literal or OED-endorsed use of any meaning of whittle, but I’m comfortable working out a figurative meaning on context.

unsay, v.
2. To withdraw, retract, or revoke (something said or written).

rip, v.
8. a. dial. To use strong language; to swear.
That’s my best guess, but it doesn’t work as well as I’d like. Anyone have a better suggestion?

fluke, n.
2. pl. ‘The two parts which constitute the large triangular tail of the whale’ (Adm. Smyth). to turn or peak the flukes: of a whale, to go under; hence transf. (Naut. slang) to go to bed, ‘turn in’.

glim, n
3. slang. a. A light of any kind; a candle, a lantern.

vum, v. U.S. colloq.
intr. To vow, swear.
Seems to be sort of like the British “I say!”

A board used to close up a fireplace in summer, a chimney board.

land trunk
Presumably, luggage for carrying stuff from place to place while on shore, as opposed to the heavier sea-chest used for all storage on board the ship. I’m completely making this up, and I’m not sure that what I’m saying makes sense – can’t find it in a reference. Help.

hamper, n.
1. Something that hampers, or prevents freedom of movement; a shackle. Obs.
2. Naut. Things which form a necessary part of the equipment of a vessel, but are in the way at certain times.

bolt, v.
6. colloq. To swallow hastily and without chewing, swallow whole or with a single effort, gulp down.

A material for covering and closing superficial wounds, consisting of linen, silk, or other textile fabric, or of plastic, spread with an adhesive substance; a general name for COURT-PLASTER, LEAD-plaster, DIACHYLON-plaster, etc.

parcel, n.
6. a. A small party, collection, or assembly (of people, animals, or things); a detachment; a group, a lot, a set; a drove, a flock, a herd. Now Eng. regional and U.S. colloq.

A coarse jacket with a hood, worn in the Levant. Also slang, a rough great-coat.

dreadnought, n.
1. a. A thick coat or outer garment worn in very inclement weather.

a. A game in which ten pins or ‘men’ are set up to be bowled at; cf. NINEPINS; spec. (orig. U.S.) a game so played, also called in England ‘American bowls’. Also, the pins with which this game is played; in sing. tenpin, one of these.

2. Arch. Each of the side posts of a doorway, window, or chimney-piece, upon which rests the lintel; a cheek; esp., in popular use, (pl.) the stone sides or cheeks of a fire-place.


conjure, v.
4. a. To entreat (a person) by something for which he has a strong regard; to appeal solemnly or earnestly to; to beseech, implore.

I feel pretty confident about redirecting this one to
savvy, v. slang.
trans. To know; to understand, comprehend. Freq. used in the interrogative (= ‘do you understand?’) following an explanation to a foreigner or to one considered slow-witted. Also absol.
Etymology: [Orig. Negro-Eng. and Pigeon-Eng., after Sp. sabe usted you know: see also SABE v.]

sabe, v. slang (orig. U.S.).
Spellings: Also sabee

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March 12, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 2


carpet-bag, n.
1. a. A travelling bag, properly one made of carpet.

Not a real name for Manhattan. Google this and you’ll come up with Moby-Dick. I think Melville’s just jokingly extrapolating this from his already affected “city of the Manhattoes” in the previous chapter.

packet, n.
2. Short for PACKET-BOAT n.
packet-boat, n.
A boat or ship travelling at regular intervals between two ports, originally for the conveyance of mail, later also of goods and passengers; a mailboat. Originally used of the boat which carried ‘the packet’ of State letters and dispatches, chiefly between England and Ireland.

offer, v.
6. b. intr. with reflexive meaning. Of an object, phenomenon, event, etc.: to present itself; to occur.

the Tyre of this Carthage
Carthage was originally founded a colonial outpost of Tyre. Both were major port cities and the Phoenicians were the greatest sailors of their time. Carthage was taken over by the Romans and so remains significant for longer to a Euro-centric history, whereas Tyre’s prominence declined during the Christian era. As Wikipedia puts it, Tyre was sometimes “taken as an examplar [sic] of the mortality of great power and status” by 19th-century writers.

aboriginal, a.
1. First or earliest so far as history or science gives record; primitive; strictly native, indigenous. Used both of the races and natural features of various lands. 2. spec. Dwelling in any country before the arrival of later (European) colonists.

sloop, n.
1. a. A small, one-masted, fore-and-aft rigged vessel, differing from a cutter in having a jib-stay and standing bowsprit.

concernment, n.
5. The quality of concerning or being important to persons, etc.; importance, weight, moment. b. esp. in the attrib. phrases, of concernment, of great, special, vital (etc.) concernment.

grapnel, n.
2. A small anchor with three or more flukes, used esp. for boats, and for securing a balloon on its descent. (transf. and fig.)

fervent, a.
1. Hot, burning, glowing, boiling.
Yes, yes, as with many other words here, of course I already know this word, but my grasp on its meaning is via the metaphoric sense, and to be sure that I am understanding it correctly when used literally, as here, I feel a look-up has probably been long in order. So this is the opportunity. This will be my last disclaimer, so keep it in mind!

don’t you hear
Has someone told him to move along? Is he referring to such a voice even though nobody has said anything? Or is “don’t you hear” an idiomatic tag as part of an impression of such a voice, where “go on, don’t you hear?” is something folksy like “go on, and don’t be talkin’!” The “patched boots” thing makes me think this is all some kind of sarcastic disgust with his imagined version of the inn’s disgust with him, but the juxtaposition of the “sounds of the tinkling glasses” with “don’t you hear?” has thrown me. Opinions please.

ash, n.
b. Special combinations (chiefly attrib.):ash-box, a receptacle for ashes, (a) a pan beneath a fire-grate, (b) a dust-bin.

“The Trap”
I really can’t say for sure what this means to him – obviously something sardonic and nautical. The relevant traps might be lobster traps or fishing “trap-nets.” This would all be well and good if I knew how he thought it applied – as far as I can tell it seems to have to have to do with the fact that the door stood invitingly open and yet there was an ash-box there for him to trip over as soon as went inside. Is that the trap in question? Is he saying that the ash-box was itself the “sign” of “The Trap?” Or does this actually relate somehow to his odd allusion to Gomorrah? This is exactly the sort of thing I want not to have to shrug at! Someone please explain it to me.

Black Parliament sitting in Tophet
Tophet was a biblical city wherein child sacrifices were supposed to take place. Later, as a result, a term for hell. “Black Parliament” has been the name for several different historical things, none of which seems remotely relevant. I think it’s just an invention, capitalized simply for gothic/biblical force.

blackness of darkness
It may be worth mentioning that while the “weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing” talk is all over the place in the bible, the phrase “blackness of darkness” appears in only one place in the King James edition that Melville seems to have used: Jude 1:13 – which says that godless men are like “raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.” Given the “raging waves” I tend to suspect the allusion to this particular verse is intentional, but I may be wrong.

pea coffee
U.S. (now hist.), a beverage made by boiling roasted peas in water.

A stormy wind mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles: see EURAQUILO. Hence occas. with allusion to this, a ‘tempestuous wind’ in general. Also fig.
The Apostle Paul is shipwrecked on Malta after being blown by the wind Euroclydon in Acts 27-28. The wind is named in Acts 27:14.

hob, n.
1. a. (Formerly also hub.) In a fire-place, the part of the casing having a surface level with the top of the grate.
I think this is generally just a shelf near the fire for keeping things warm – that’s what it is on a stove. But I assume this guy’s feet aren’t on the stove.

wight, n.
1. b. orig. and chiefly with (good or bad) epithet, applied to supernatural, preternatural, or unearthly beings. Obs. or rare arch.

Death is the only glazier
If the windows in question are the eyes – and aren’t they? Ishmael says as much in the next couple lines – then I don’t understand why Death is the glazier, unless this is some kind of pun on “glazing” windows and the eyes “glazing” over, which are not the same glazing at all. That doesn’t really work for me, since death is a fair bit worse than the eyes glazing over. Is the idea that a glazier is also the only person qualified to remove windows from their frames? The whole thing doesn’t really work, because the eyes aren’t really “sashless.” Are the windows here just something abstract – the mental portals through which all experience flows? I don’t like that answer either. Once again, please help.

old black-letter
Black-letter is that antiquated style of typeface that we particularly associate with German and Old English. In one way or another he obviously means, “old book guy,” but this is an odd construction and I’m interested if anyone thinks there’s more to the joke.

3. a. A soft material for dressing wounds (formerly also to burn for tinder), prepared by ravelling or scraping linen cloth. b. Fluff of any material.

The top or head stone of a building; almost always fig. the crown, completion, finishing touch.

I take it he means the chips left by a sculptor. No?

Lazarus rare.
A leper; a beggar.

1. The Latin word for ‘rich (man)’, occurring in the Vulgate, Luke xvi; whence commonly taken as the proper name of the rich man in that parable; and used generically for ‘rich man’.
Lazarus and Dives are an opposed pair in one of Jesus’ parables, whose names, as per the OED, have come to stand for the archetypes they represent. Lazarus goes to heaven and Dives goes to hell and there’s no saving him; he should have paid more attention to the bible when he was alive. End of story. This explains the “redder one afterwards” joke that comes up immediately.

the Moluccas
The Malaku Islands, in Indonesia, just west of New Guinea.

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