Monthly Archives: May 2006

May 18, 2006

LA Rite

I guess this is a sort of sequel to “LA Streets” from a couple months ago. If that was a parody-tribute, what is this? “In poor taste” probably. I guess it’s just your typical “high/low” joke, but it got in my head the other day and I couldn’t resist.

LA Rite.

Actually it should be called Blood Spring III: Sacre. Press A to leap, press B to quiver. Try to dance to the death by hitting A and B repeatedly.

For nerds only, I should have said up there.

If you are confused, click here. Or just move on with your life.

May 14, 2006

Landscape of the Body (1977)

by John Guare
at Signature Theatre Company
directed by Michael Greif
opened March 28, 2006

I participate in theater when I can but I don’t see so much of it. It seems like whenever I do I end up thinking, “oh yeah, theater is really weird.”

Live performance is, in theory, more exciting than film because it is present and happening; at any given point in a play, the next moment has not yet happened (unlike with a movie, where it all happened months or years ago and has since been filtered and processed many times over), and our fear of the future comes into play. Which is indeed thrilling. Though I think probably too much of my mind is devoted to things like “what if they forget their lines? what if it all comes crashing down on them?” But a milder, more general version of that anxiety imparts a spark of danger and thus relevance to everything in the theater. It’s real. Also, they can see you; they the actors can see you the audience. You’re all in this together. It’s a ritual that needs to be upheld… for the gods of the theater, I guess. Everyone needs to do their part, and if the performance is a success, you, as audience, are party to that.

This stuff is all a gamble, of course, and it can come back to bite you. We saw this play with an audience of cane-walking coughers who weren’t amused by the laugh lines and occasionally had to repeat things to themselves to make sense of them. At least the woman behind me did. Also at one point she felt compelled to say “this head is in the way,” possibly referring to the head I have been working on all these years. She may also have been referring to the head of the man in front of me, which, for what it’s worth, was in the way for me as well. But I didn’t say so – nor did I say anything else out loud. Nor did I bring cough drops in crinkly wrappers and unwrap them, after coughing for twenty minutes, and then continue to cough. But to each his own. All I mean to say is that in the grand ritual we were supposed to perform, Lili Taylor and I were teamed up, on this occasion, with a crowd of amateurs, and so unfortunately it was one of those times where the “live performance” gamble doesn’t pay off and you start to wonder why anyone would be so foolish as to put on a live show, which can so easily be ruined. Films are immune to indifference. If you show a film of a tree falling, in a forest, with nobody around… or… if you show a film of a lumberjack with a saw, in a forest… no… if you put a tree falling in a forest on stage… oh whatever.

I try my best to see past this sort of thing but it’s hard. This play didn’t really mean too much to me. I think if I had seen it with a really well-rehearsed audience, and they had been participating in the rally of the production, and I had felt that sense that we’re all rooting for the same cause, we’re all trying to chant the same chant and conjure the same magical fiery ball of artistic experience – this is an 80s special effect, I’m describing, glowing blue and animated, hovering over the audience – I would have found my way to believing in that ball. But nobody in the audience was chanting anything and I felt that sense of the performance dropping back to its lowest-common-motivator: why are we doing this? It’s our job to say and do these things. You paid for us to perform the script of Landscape of the Body (1977) by John Guare and here it is. We put together some sets and costumes and stuff to go with it, hope you like it.

I’m saying that if I had been made to feel – via social suggestion, I guess – that we were part of it and the performers had felt that we were part of it, maybe it would have meant more to me. But I’m not sure. Maybe it was just the script. In fact, maybe I went to this place in my head because the script did not invite me to be a part of it, or to have any particular kind of experience, as far as I could tell. It was its own thing, a piece of weird sculpture. It probably would have been that even without the cough drops. It was very odd, an artifact of something I’m not going to claim to understand entirely.

But did the playwright? Did anyone?

On the ground level you can say, crankily, “Well, those people would never say and do those things. I don’t even think those people could exist. And this and that speech was just poetry from the playwright, not the thoughts of the character. And this and that event didn’t seem likely or sensible.” But – and I’m already venturing away from what I can be absolutely sure of – I’m pretty much certain that the play knew all that. It clearly wasn’t an attempt at verisimilitude. It was, rather, as one review I just read put it, “freewheeling.” It was a fantasia. It felt improvisatory. Implicitly it said, “Don’t think that it matters too much whether events cause one another or whether these are ‘real’ people – just take in the flavor of things, consider the texture and tendencies of what I’m showing you – that’s the message.” And so in retrospect it was one of those box-of-goodies artworks, wherefrom we get a sense of the artist himself, more than anything else, by seeing what kind of stuff he likes. I don’t know any other John Guare plays – no, really, not even Six Degrees of Separation, which everyone on Earth seems to know because it was a movie, and no, not even House of Blue Leaves even though they did it when I was in college and everyone said it was good – but I get the sense that for the most part we’re not into the same stuff. Of course, this was written back in 1977, so maybe that’s to blame. But this box of goodies had a “can you believe this it’s a severed head onstage” severed head in it, and a man in a gold dress being gunned to death, and a coke-snorting porn star, and a crazed ice-cream man, and Groucho glasses, and a kid freaking out poetically and then being killed in slow-motion with a wrench, and some other stuff, and I guess I felt a little like I was supposed to think it was “wild,” – either “delightfully wild” or “unnervingly wild” or both – and I didn’t really feel that. That stuff isn’t in my box of goodies; neither was I shocked by it. It was just someone’s assemblage of stuff.

I found it hard – or at least not natural – to think in any way that could move me about issues like the fragility of life and the inevitability of loss, dreams and regrets, memory, love, and other stuff that I think the play was about – because I didn’t feel like I was in a world of real people, and those are real people issues. Nor was I in a world of philosophy. Somewhere behind the goings-on onstage was John Guare, pulling the strings and making weird stuff go down, and somewhere behind his words were his thoughts, and somewhere back there, no doubt, was something human and maybe even touching or bittersweet or funny. But it was not hovering overhead like a special effect. Again, though, that may have been the audience’s fault.

Lili Taylor and Sherie Rene Scott and the cop and the guy in the dress, and yeah, even the kids, all did a fine and admirable job. So too did the couple of people in the production that I knew – the reason I ended up seeing a play at all. I find plays difficult. I also find them expensive. Maybe if they were cheaper I’d see more and get better at them.

But in college they were cheap and I hardly saw any then. But I’m a different person now, at least insofar as my hunger for cultural experience is a stronger force in my life than my sense that I am surrounded by an endless field of portentous and untameable social possibility which can only be escaped by staying in my room and waiting for everyone else to fall asleep, and then going down to the dining hall at 4 AM and videotaping myself eating several glasses of dry Cracklin’ Oat Bran. So take note, theater producers, and lower those prices.

I should point out that I’m not complaining about these tickets, however. The Signature Theatre Company had some kind of corporate help and was able to offer $15 tickets to this show. I’m all for that. Way to go, Signature Theatre Company, and keep it up. I’ll come to the next cheap show, I promise.

May 14, 2006

Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic

These were my thoughts on seeing the Andrew Wyeth exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They have not been coordinated with one another and definitely don’t constitute a “review.” I typed them in short note form right when I got back from the exhibition, a couple weeks ago, and have been putting off fleshing them out enough for a general audience. Now I’m done.

The audio tour introduction contained a quote from Wyeth along the lines of “People who don’t look at my work think of me as a painter of old oaken buckets. I’m anything but that.” This was preceded by something straight from the curator to the same effect – “we hope you’ll discover that Andrew Wyeth isn’t about what you thought he was; there’s more to this work than there might seem.” To which I wanted to ask: why do exhibitions always need to claim that they are going to change your mind about something or reveal secrets? It reminds me of the sort of formulaic thing kids (I) do (did) in writing high school essays to create the effect of being thought-provoking, by contriving to make compatible things seem incompatible so as then to reveal them as compatible. “Paradoxically, many of Shakespeare’s plays are about the rich, yet he wrote them for an audience of the poor.” This is like a magician telling you he has some linked rings in his bag, then pulling out — ta-da! — two separate rings! So anyway, why do museums have to stoop to this sort of thing? Why does an exhibit have to “accomplish” anything other than putting worthy works on display? It seems to fit in with an aspect of 20th century art-world thought that I hate, the idea that art theory and art itself are close relatives.

There’s also something dishonest and (it seems to me) motivated by a sense of inadequacy more than anything else, about this desire to claim that art isn’t just what it seems to be. I could imagine that Wyeth’s comment about the old oaken buckets is also a form of defensiveness. Because whatever else he may be, he most certainly is a painter of old oaken buckets. And what’s so wrong with that? Somewhere, the unvoiced opinion that it is “naive” or “trite” is ringing in the air, and the artist, the curator, and the reviewer are all scrambling to distance themselves from it.

It is a lamentable state of mind, to believe that the claim that art has value needs substantiation but the claim that art lacks value does not. When someone accuses something of being naive or embarrassing, it takes guts to stand up for it and say that it isn’t naive – because you might look naive in the process – but when someone “accuses” something of being great art, there’s no risk involved in saying that they’re wrong. Except the risk of looking cranky, but crankiness and sophistication are perceived as compatible, whereas naivete and sophistication are opposites.

I should have said, it’s a lamentable state of mind to believe that the claim that art has value needs more rigorous substantiation than the claim that art lacks value. The looming unspoken criticism, that Wyeth’s work is insubstantial sentimentalism, is not, in fact, self-evident. The exhibition seemed to believe that it was, which could only stem from the fact that the works were being defended in somewhat bad faith by an institution that actually fundamentally agreed with the criticisms. Any era’s art culture is made up of various biases – but either they’re saying that we should forget our biases – which they weren’t; these were not paintings of old oaken buckets, they told us; those would indeed be trashy – or they’re saying that our biases don’t concern these works, which is either an easy case to make or else simply isn’t true. Instead, what they chose to say was: those biases do concern these works, but not enough to convict. You probably thought these works were guilty, because they do look guilty, but we’re going to spring them on a technicality, and won’t that be exciting. This was, to me, distasteful.

The review in the New York Times of this exhibit more or less dismissed the body of it as being just so much magic romanticism and singled out a recent painting of the interior of Wyeth’s private jet as the most interesting in the show, because it reveals that Wyeth’s actual life is one of wealth and privilege. This strikes me as cynical to the point of offensiveness. The curation made convincingly clear that Wyeth’s paintings attempt to be about memory and death and the nature of experience, and the like – this in the end is the gist of the “not just buckets” comment. The idea that the painting that reveals him to be rich is more interesting than the paintings that don’t is, it feels to me, contemptuously far from trying to take his work seriously. “Yeah yeah, the mystery of life, sure – what would you know, gramps? Why don’t you just buy yourself another fucking yacht and shut up already.” This infuriates me just like all the reviews of mainstream Hollywood movies on IMDB that say “what a bunch of whiny white people!”

Despite all sorts of macho/curmudgeonly insinuation to the contrary, I still cannot see any situation in which empathy is a mistake or will lead to weakness. Lack of empathy may not be anything to be ashamed of, but it is most definitely nothing to be proud of. Sticking sociological Cheetos on it (“bourgeois,” “white,” “entitled”) and trying to pass it off as incisive criticism really offends me. Yes, some artists might well be white and rich, and if from your point of view that’s depressing or distracting, that’s probably something worth talking about – but it’s not the same thing as the art itself.

Yeah yeah, contemporary theory would say they’re inseparable. Well, not gonna talk about it right now but I already touched on this at the end of this entry. Inseparable doesn’t mean indistinct.

The curatorial texts on the walls and the audio-tour talked all about how Wyeth used symbols, parallels, conceptual abstraction, design, and other visual elements to indicate psychology, drama, the flavor of experience, personal significances etc. etc. as though these were the choices and ideas that made his work deep, valuable, and distinctive. But… that’s what painting is! I wasn’t sure whether the fact that baby-talking curators were spoon-feeding us these many-century-old basic premises of the painter’s art – the premises underlying most of the other art in the museum – was a reflection of the educational/outreach spirit of this intentionally crowd-drawing special exhibit, or of the fact that the art that contained all those elements, which I would call “painting,” is as an institution long dead. I think it’s both. It just struck me as odd that the same people who had walked through the museum and looked at all sorts of paintings without help were now being acknowledged probably to have had no clue or reason to care about them.

The exhibit narrated its way through A. Wyeth’s apprenticeship to his father N.C. Wyeth, giving some idea of the rigorous, traditional craftsman’s training he received. I liked that part, and I liked that aspect of the work as a whole. Respect for craft always pleases me. Isn’t craft such a huge part of the effect and value of a painting? I’m still impressed to the point of being moved by the fact that skilled painters can make paint look exactly like real things. Am I supposed to be embarrassed about that? You can say it’s a superficial thing to care about, if you must, but isn’t the irritating thing about craft-less contemporary art exactly the “my dog could do that” syndrome? I for one take great pleasure in seeing things that I couldn’t do. They’re more impressive, which is to say more likely to make an impression on me.

Wyeth’s work is more or less all about the specific quality of the craft, to me, but that’s hard to talk about so the curation simply didn’t. How does he make a lot of dead grass seem like memorable, romantic dead grass? It’s all to do with brush strokes and color mixing; that’s why he’s in the museum. The actual notions behind the paintings (“this rock symbolizes his father”) are just the framework, and notions are a dime a dozen. I know it’s hard to talk about technique, at least in a valuable way… so instead here’s the audio guide leading us down some other, pointless path, because it can.

A drawback of craft-oriented art is that, like out-and-out craft, it can start to seem monotonous; it’s more about the work as a whole than about any particular piece. It’s no wonder that only a few of them stand out as superior, but why should they have to? 60 works at once is too many for anyone. If there was a single Andrew Wyeth hanging in the diner down the street, you can bet I would have noticed it and thought it was pretty great. Of course, maybe that’s not the best way to think about it. Or maybe it’s exactly the best way to think about it.

I was standing there looking at some painting of a window, and next to me are a couple of average-looking late-middle-aged touristy guys looking at some painting of a window. They’re reading this paragraph on the wall about it (“Wyeth draws us through the window into the space beyond…” or something), pressing #141 on their audio guide and listening, and then looking again at this painting of a window, trying hard to get it. Why am I looking at this? we ask, and the museum tries to tell us and we try to agree. I don’t know, it seemed so absurd. Somehow these guys had entered into a contract wherein they would pay money to look at a picture of a window, and having paid the money, they were going to look at it and look at it good. Did they care? Did I care? Isn’t this what everyone ends up thinking about at a museum?

Working one’s whole life toward a single aesthetic goal is more of a thing to live than to a thing to see all at once. I think sometimes I try to be a completist because it seems like this is what’s wanted of me by the creators of things that fit into complete sets, or by the sets themselves. But those sets are just the result of the constant creative functioning of the artist, and don’t form an artistic whole to be enjoyed in the form of its completeness any more than the artist’s life itself. So maybe we never need 60 paintings all at once.

The exhibit included long sequences of preliminary studies for two paintings. They were interesting because they revealed some aspects of the technique and the process – but shouldn’t that be like bonus material rather than part of the main attraction? Again, the museum was opting to be about art study rather than art itself.

I’m not sure but I think maybe N.C. was the better artist.

May 13, 2006

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

I enjoyed it.

Something else I’ve watched recently: some of the content from Wholphin, that DVD from McSweeney’s.

Ghost Dog was like Broken Flowers (and therefore, I extrapolate, like all the other Jim Jarmusch movies I’ve yet to see) in that it attempted some quizzical blend of seriousness and silliness. It attempted a recognizably similar blend. McSweeney’s & Co., particularly represented in my mind by the content and presentation of Wholphin, is also all about the blend (or the middle ground) between the serious and the frivolous, but theirs has a somewhat different flavor. Still, it seemed like they have something in common. They both are implicitly saying that being serious is not necessarily a serious business, or that being frivolous is not itself frivolous. This may be an ancient literary/philosophical notion but it seems at least in these two incarnations somehow very contemporary; both Jim Jarmusch and McSweeney’s get mileage out of the fact that this attitude makes them appear youthful and fresh. Jarmusch seems to me someone who is more or less honestly going about exploring his fascination with this attitude, whereas McSweeney’s, at least to me, represents the self-regarding use of this attitude as posture (or, depending on what kind of cynic you are, the commodification of the attitude). Miranda July, who has a short piece on the Wholphin DVD, courts annoyance by being so flagrantly fixated on her own serio-frivolous breeziness, but flagrancy is generally a sign of sincerity. There were scenes in Ghost Dog that were so shameless in their pursuit of being “peculiarly silly” that I knew he wasn’t doing it for the glory. McSweeney’s (and some – if not all – of Wholphin) irritates me because it plays the seriousness-of-comedy cards from so close to its chest; it’s so cagey/deadpan about its performance of an attitude that ostensibly is founded on a relaxed opennness to the real mysteries of life. How can I believe in (or be moved by) your simple, childlike wonder at the world when you’re so obviously so hyper-conscious and calculating about self-presentation? Well at least that was my problem with Dave Eggers. Or was before I stopped reading what he wrote.

This is what the term “faux-naif” should refer to. Unfortunately I think it means something closer to “playing dumb.”

During Ghost Dog – and I guess maybe this speaks to some kind of failing on the part of Ghost Dog, but maybe not – I was thinking about how this attitude, like I said, gets credit for being youthful and fresh, a spiritual antidote to our numb assumptions about the world… but maybe it’s as regressive as the stuffed-shirts would say. Childlike wonder and childlike incomprehension are more or less the same thing. I think often about how the things that filled me with strange impressions as a child are now things that make sense to me; a book that has lost its aura of mystery has gained its meaning. That’s not a bad tradeoff. Doesn’t the world offer us enough opportunities for wonder (death, consciousness, and so forth) that we don’t need to be so nostalgic-desperate about the whiff of mystery that clings to things when we don’t yet understand them? If Miranda July and friends are simply saying that we must never forget that we are fallible and that we may understand less than we think, I wholeheartedly endorse that message. But there seems like some kind of sentimentalism about confusion; that it wasn’t the openness and lack of prejudice but the actual bewilderment of childhood that needs to be shown respect. I mean, I certainly enjoy the trip, when that’s what art offers, which is often! – but once we start insinuating that it’s an actual good; in fact, that maybe even the wisdom of not-understanding is a wisdom that goes beyond the wisdom of understanding – then I start to want some reassurance that this is wisdom and not just a form of immaturity.

On to these thoughts the movie juxtaposed Samurai wisdom (I was going to say “Zen,” but I know that would betray a gross ignorance of distinctions between schools of classical Japanese philosophy), which also sanctifies (what’s a word that means “makes seem wise”?) the embrace of mystery as mystery and sadly (but superior-ly) shakes its head at the idea that the world is knowable. But again, isn’t mystery the domain of children? Certainly in many ways, in the cosmic sense, we are indeed all children – but why deny ourselves the rights and responsibilities of adulthood with regard to understanding, say, interpersonal relationships (, Miranda?) or the self (, Jim?) Isn’t there a way to acknowledge our shortcomings and inconsistencies, to be aware of our lack of understanding without aggrandizing mystery as beautiful and complete? Why is it wrong to see mystery as a challenge? This suddenly reminds me of my irritation when I saw Jules et Jim – is life really as poetry? Are you sure? And if the point is not that life is this way, if the poetry is a tool for us to bring back to life from another sort of place, why cast poetry in life’s image at all? I already asked this here once before. Still haven’t finished Mimesis, but I’m working on it.

I don’t know, this isn’t at all my long-term attitude but the devil’s advocate in my brain was gnawing out a tunnel in this direction last night, anyway. It’s actually a little hard for me to write it now, by the light of the next day, because these ideas don’t have as much inherent appeal to me at this point. But look, I got it down anyway.

I sort of want to dismiss all of the above, now, to show where I “really” stand, but I think that argument is an easier one to make – at least it seems that way to me because I’m naturally drawn to it – and anyway, it’s annoying for you to have to read something and then read the opposite of it, and annoying for me to write it.

Yeah, that’s really going to be it for Ghost Dog. Oh, but I will say this: Miller’s Crossing, which also takes gangster genre stuff in a moody philosophical direction, is more genuinely thoughtful and much less childlike. The main thing that Ghost Dog had that Miller’s Crossing didn’t was the element of Samurai codes and, in a related vein, hip-hop. The solemnity in both cases seemed sort of borrowed rather than presented, but that was the point. But maybe that’s also a limitation.

Okay, some more about the actual movie. I liked the music by RZA – or as I like to call him, THE RZA. Of course, this is one of those cases where the choice of composer was more of the point than any particular thing the composer did for the movie itself. Good mood-music instinct on Jarmusch’s part. I was reminded of a similarly apt atmosphere-creating choice of that pre-existing music for Amélie. Then he goes and actually shows Ghost Dog putting on mood music, which I was less into. Mood music can have a profound effect but it isn’t all that profound a concept. In fact it’s kind of embarrassing to show it; it’s a kind of self-manipulation, but the movie didn’t seem to see it that way. I guess meditation is also self-manipulation. Jim Jarmusch (and Ghost Dog) probably see mood-music self-prescription as being more like meditation than willful submission to a romantic illusion. It’s so hard to figure out where to draw these lines!

This movie was one of those custom-designed vehicles for the vibe of a certain actor as perceived by a certain director. The whole movie was kind of like a frame of concentric Forest Whitaker outlines lovingly traced around Forest Whitaker himself, just like Punch-Drunk Love was a weird sort of frame fondly built around a particular impression of Adam Sandler, and of course like all those Bill Murray movies that reveal the parts of themselves that certain people like to project on to Bill Murray.

May 12, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 9


3. Naut. f. Used interjectionally, as a demand to clear the way.
Seems like he’s using it in a slightly different sense, to mean “get out of there” but not “clear the way.”

side, v.
12. To move or turn sideways.

larboard, n. Naut.
The side of a ship which is to the left hand of a person looking from the stern towards the bows. Opposed to starboard.

midships, n. Naut.
The middle part of a vessel (with regard to either its length or its breadth); spec. the middle part as identified by the point of intersection of a fore-and-aft line and the broadest portion of the vessel.

The ribs and terrors in the whale,
This site helpfully points out that Father Mapple’s hymn (original to Melville) is a parody-variant of this existing hymn by Isaac Watts (which I believe was figured out by going here). The biblical text of Psalm 18, which is clearly discernible in the Melville even if you don’t know the Watts, is here. The book of Jonah is also worth a look in this regard (and for the rest of this chapter). The present piece is sort of a fusion of Psalms 18 and Jonah 2.

clinch, v.
3. trans. Naut. To make fast the end of a rope in a particular way: see CLINCH n. 2.
6. trans. To secure, make fast. Obs. rare.

clinch, n.
2. Naut. ‘A method of fastening large ropes by a half-hitch, with the end stopped back to its own part by seizings’ (Adm. Smyth): that part of a rope which is clinched.

seizing, vbl. n.
2. concr. (Naut.) b. A small cord for ‘seizing’ two ropes together, or a rope to something else.

I think he just means something like “grab hold of this verse; seize it with your attention.”

3. A line used at sea; (a) a sounding line.

sound, v.
2. a. Naut. To employ the line and lead, or other appropriate means, in order to ascertain the depth of the sea, a channel, etc., or the nature of the bottom. Also fig.

1. A song, properly a little song; a hymn. c. transf.

pilot n.
1. A navigator, guide, or driver. b. fig. A leader; a mentor, teacher; a moral or spiritual guide; a clergyman.

Jonah’s father, as per the first verse of the book of Jonah. Also mentioned in an epithet for Jonah in Kings 14:25. This site is telling me it means “my truth” in Hebrew. The important thing here, I’d say, is just to be reassured that there’s nothing to know about Amittai .

Wikipedia tells me that Joppa is Jaffa. Oh, and so too will Melville in a few sentences. Jonah 1:3.

Wikipedia says that Tarshish might have been Tarsus or Tartessos (Spain), but that more likely in this case it just means “some faraway city.” Of course, Melville’s about to tell us it’s Cadiz. This is part of the school of speculation regarding the Spanish “Tartessos.”

slouched, ppl. a.
1. slouched hat, a slouch hat. Also, one worn in such a manner that the brim hangs over the face.

slouch hat
A hat of soft or unstiffened felt or other material, esp. one having a broad brim which hangs or lops down over the face.

essay, v.
4. To attempt; to try to do, effect, accomplish, or make (anything difficult)

he paid the fare thereof
Still working on Jonah 1:3. King James Version as always.

2. spec. Inordinate desire to appropriate wealth or possessions; greed of gain.

at its axis
Can’t picture this. What does this lamp look like?

heel, v. Chiefly Naut.
1. intr. Of a ship: To incline or lean to one side, as when canted by the wind or unevenly loaded.

plunge, v.
7. transf. a. intr. To fling or throw oneself violently forward, esp. with a diving action: said of a horse (opposed to REAR, v.)

steel tags
Well, I certainly get the general metaphorical gist here, but is he saying that the horse is harnessed by some kind of spikes in its flesh? Or just that the body armor is uncomfortable to it? I don’t know what these steel tags are or how exactly they hurt the horse, despite a fair amount of searching on my part.

3. b. A wonderful example of (some quality).

careen, v.
4. a. intr. ‘A ship is said to careen when she inclines to one side, or lies over when sailing on a wind’ (Smyth Sailor’s Word-bk.).

1. An officer in a ship who has charge of the sails, rigging, etc., and whose duty it is to summon the men to their duties with a whistle.

as I have taken it
i.e. ‘as I understand it from the text’? Or ‘as I said earlier’? Or what?

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

panther, n.
1. c. fig. A fierce, powerful, or elusive person or thing.

masterless, a.
3. Unable to be mastered or controlled; ungovernable. Obs.

means just what you think it means.

I assume he means “to” in the sense of “shut.” No?

A deep swell or heavy rolling of the sea, the result of a distant storm or seismic disturbance.

quick, a.
17. Of feelings: Lively, vivid, keen, strongly felt.

plummet, n.
2. A piece of lead or other metal attached to a line, and used for sounding or measuring the depth of water; a sounding-lead.

as the great Pilot Paul has it
In Corinthians 9:27. There’s a sort of pun on “castaway” going on here, if you couldn’t tell.

truck, n.
2. Naut. a. A circular or square cap of wood fixed on the head of a mast or flag-staff, usually with small holes or sheaves for halliards.

kelson, Naut.
1. a. A line of timber placed inside a ship along the floor-timbers and parallel with the keel, to which it is bolted, so as to fasten the floor-timbers and the keel together; a similar bar or combination of iron plates in iron vessels.

strong arms yet support him
Does he mean treading water? I think he means treading water.

18. a. Exemption from being immediately put to death, granted to a vanquished opponent by the victor in a battle or fight; clemency or mercy shown in sparing the life of one who surrenders. b. transf. and fig.

i &middot ii &middot 1 &middot 2 &middot 3 &middot 4 &middot 5 &middot 6 &middot 7 &middot 8

May 5, 2006


I just saw, um, something. An artistic work. This work trafficked pretty much entirely in cliched, secondhand material. It was, to put it simply, junky and undistinguished. I’m not trying to write a review here; this is just what you need to know before I can say what I want to say. (For what it’s worth, I consider the comments above to be fairly objective facts about the thing – they don’t really touch on my opinion.)

Anyway, this particular work, for all its shortcomings, did not particularly annoy or displease me. In fact I generally considered it successful, and in articulating the reason why, I feel like I hit upon a possible litmus test for all art. The piece pleased me because I believe that it would have pleased its own creators. That is to say, it was made of stuff that I would consider “corny,” but made by people who (it seemed to me) sincerely loved that corn. Had the creators wandered in like I had, I believe they would have found their work absolutely delightful. And I don’t think this is true of all works – in fact, I don’t think it’s true of a great many works. And I think the distinction gets at something crucial. I think one subconsciously tries to have the experience that the creators would have had.

So much television seems bad not precisely because it is stupid, but rather because it is stupid but not infused with any sincere love of stupidity. TV shows almost always give me the impression of having been put together by people who, if they were in the audience, would be annoyed or disinterested. This thing I saw tonight, though objectively annoying and forgettable, would, I believe, have pleased its creators, and this makes me sympathetic – to the artists and to their work. Enthusiasm is sympathetic. The opposite is not. Is cynicism the opposite? Maybe, in this situation anyway.

I worry sometimes that if I encountered my own music (or my own writing) I wouldn’t like it. But, and I am trying to be fair with myself, I don’t think that’s what would happen. I think that if I encountered something by me, I would feel threatened by it because I would identify with it, and would try to find flaws with it – and would easily find some – but I think that the sincerity of it would come through and I would ultimately be heartened by the fact that someone else out there had a similar sensibility to me. Namely, me.

I still think sometimes about the question I posed at the end of my posting about Everything Is Illuminated in re: what is it about bad art/writing/whatever that makes us feel “manipulated” rather than “moved” or “entertained.” Maybe this is a partial answer. I didn’t get the impression that Jonathan Safran Foer would have been particularly moved by his own book. I think he just would have felt like someone was stealing his material.

I definitely don’t think George Lucas would like the new Star Wars movies if he hadn’t made them.

I’m tired so this is over.

May 3, 2006

A Bit on Notation

To play a piece well, I should imagine that I made it up, guided by my ear and sense of drama, became accustomed to playing it, and eventually decided to notate it, only then discovering what it looked like on the page. When I encounter a score I tend to think of it in whatever terms the score implies, visually, but that’s a mistake. It allows me quick access to the piece because patterns are already arrayed visually and can be comprehended almost instantly, but ultimately those aren’t the sorts of patterns that make a musical performance come alive.

Charles Ives said that he wasn’t exactly sure how to notate his music and that he thought maybe someone else could do it better; his scores were the best approximation he could manage. What he meant by “better” was “in a way where the patterns revealed notationally correspond more closely to the patterns that govern the music itself.” His music is certainly difficult to make sense of, but – and I’m thinking of the Concord Sonata, here – I’ve found that the greater difficulty is in finding the sense behind a notation that tends to obscure that sense, even while it forms a record of it.

I’m trying to articulate a principle here that is very basic to the way I think about musical scores. There’s the kind of sense a piece of music can make to the ear, and then there’s the kind of sense that music can make on the page. I tend to think of most classical music as inaccessible to me if I don’t have the benefit of a score. I can also usually make sense of a piece – if it’s traditional enough – after some 15 hearings, but I’d say that over the course of those 15 hearings I’m constructing some sort of mental map that serves the same function as a score. Without a map, I’m lost.

I think there is a philosophy-of-music mistake that gets made a lot. I’m not sure whose mistake it is – historian, composer, listener, or just me – but I do think it has a lot to do with why almost nobody wants to listen to the classical music I burn to CD for them. The mistake is thinking that to make interesting music one should make things interesting in the “map” sense. I’m not specifically talking about notation here – the map can also be the mental map that one builds over 15 listenings. Better, I should say: the mistake is, in one way or another, not taking account of the discrepancy between an aural experience of music and a “mapped” experience.

Metaphor: If you are in a hedge maze shaped like a toucan, you are not having a ‘tropical’ experience. That would require small toucans stationed inside the hedge maze.

Remember when I said I wasn’t going to waste time explicating everything so that I could touch on all my points?

A good deal – a great deal – of classical music only makes sense to me on the “yes, but look what the maze is shaped like” level. A hedge maze shaped like something might well be an unsatisfying maze to solve – too few choices, or too many long dead ends – and listening to classical music I often feel like I compensate for the lameness of any given turn in the maze by reminding myself of the lovely overall pattern of which it forms a part. The problem is that, frequently, that pattern is itself not visible from the vantage point of one in the maze. Or, to extricate myself from this metaphor: the musical structure that not only underlies and orders a piece but also thereby serves as justification (or consolation) for any indifferent or obscure details is not always accessible to a listener without recourse to some kind of extra-musical aid. And maybe it’s appropriate to think of “knowing it from having heard it 15 times already” as extra-musical – it’s cumulative knowledge, but experientially cumulative, not musically cumulative. It’s possible that what I just wrote is nonsense, but for the time being, in the context of this thought, it convinces me.

The kind of sense that I find in a score is generally inaccessible to me by ear, and complementarily (as I was saying at the beginning of this), the kind of sense I find with my ears is generally not what pops out of a score.

This goes into deeper waters – the larger issue is that of what Nicholas Cook called “the two sides of the musical fabric” in that book I read last year – and is something I wanted to write about in my very-long-delayed entry about John Williams, the point of which was going to (and may still someday) be that my ears have a very particular and nuanced understanding of certain snatches of movie music, and yet when faced with the long-inaccessible scores to same, my eyes instantly found and perceived the inanity that I had always felt obliged to claim that I heard but really never had. That is to say that the ear-regulated marketplace of movie music has sifted to the top the styles that work for the ear, regardless of what they might seem to mean when parsed by the eye (or, if you prefer, the mind). More on that, as I say, later, hopefully.

I’ve been playing the piano for a certain piece of musical theater for several months now, and almost none of what I play has ever been notated. It’s always been quite rudimentary stuff but has evolved, ever so slightly, under my hands as I play it over and over. Recently I thought that it would probably be a good idea to fix in notation just what it was that I had been playing, and I created scores for a couple of the songs, doing my best, like Ives, to capture the things that I had worked out in a realm far from notational thought. Ives had trouble notating because he was writing weird, tumultous stuff, whereas I was doing absurdly straightforward, simple, traditional things. And yet I felt befuddled by the inherent inadequacies of the notation – most of what I’d wanted to record, it turned out, were subtleties of inflection that had no real place in notation; if I shoehorned them onto the page with a bunch of finicky indications, the impression would still be wrong – as though these crucial subtleties were themselves finicky. They aren’t! Anyway, I did what I could and made something that looked normal and reasonable, and now I play with it in front of me. What’s odd is that now that I have the notation, I often find myself lapsing into parsing what I see as I would parse any other score, and I end up playing something that seems foreign and lifeless, even though all I’m trying to do is recreate my own performance! Just like when I transcribed a “script” from a videotape of a candid conversation and unsuccessfully tried to perform my own lines. I was – as with Moby-Dick – unconvincing.

The problem is the same: the sense that we make in life – in music – is not the same sense that we make in symbols. But as creators, as artificers, people tend to work with the symbols first – like some great artistic algebra, founded on the principle that the semantic quantities, the associated meanings, will survive whatever operations you put their signifiers through and will show up, analogously reconfigured, at the other side, when you reap the meaning of your symphony or novel or whatever.

Maybe my ear-thought is just limited and I need to strengthen it. Some questions to me are still unresolved: are the exquisitely elaborate orderings of Bach meant to be on the hidden or visible side of the fabric? What about sonata form? I have learned to enjoy Beethoven only by drawing a miniature map in my mind as I go – and this technique works very well, and the rewards are well worth the effort, and with enough practice the effort becomes almost imperceptible – but am I compensating for a shortcoming? Is it my personal shortcoming (related, perhaps, to my weak navigational sense)? Or has modern-day culture undertrained everyone’s ears? Or was Beethoven always and necessarily operating slightly at odds with the ways of the ear? That would be fine with me, if that were true. But only because the trade-offs seem so obviously worthwhile in his case.

The mistake mentioned above comes in pieces that, for example, seem on the page to consist of all sorts of change-of-tempo, change-of-meter, rhythmically elaborate etc. effects, but in practice simply come off in ametrical time and are thus – you’ll excuse me Mr. Carter – boring. You can quote me on this: ametrical time is inherently unmusical. That’s not to say that it’s undramatic – obviously, all sorts of dramas take place in ametrical time – and musical elements can be formed into drama.* But music that is in fact constructed in metrical time but neglects to mark it is, generally, a lost music. I am dismissing large swaths of 20th century music here but someone has to. Such music might make extra-musical sense on the page or in the memory – or even, eventually, in the ear, following the tracks laid by the memory or the score – but can never make sense (musical sense) in the ear alone. Of course, there’s still that question of the trade-off. Maybe some months spent with the score to Night Fantasies will reveal to me the greatness I’ve heard so much about. And maybe that greatness would be so great as to be some-months worthy. Maybe.

The more interesting and important direction to work, I think now, is the other way – from the notation back to what the ear can know and the heart, ahem, can understand. This is the essential problem for actors, which is I guess why I find acting so fascinating. Most acting deals with symbolic sense so shallow as not to pose any problems. It’s when you have denser stuff like Shakespeare – or, say, Melville – that inadequate “de-notation” really shows. And most Shakespearean acting that I’ve heard has been, I’d say, insufficient. Same with most classical performance.

Once I was invited to listen to a friend’s informal pseudo-concert on the violin, which she played for friends as preparation for a competition. Afterward, I picked up one of the scores to look at it, and saw with some surprise what a rhythm she had been playing “actually was,” in notational/conceptual terms – a driving rhythm in 3 – whereas I had heard it as a strange, choppy passion governed by abrupt, complex rubati. I thought about it and realized she had just been very slightly prolonging each accented note as a way of super-emphasizing it. I guess she (and, it would seem, many other classical performers) thought this would heighten the sense of propulsive energy. In fact, it had completely bucked me from the horse, and had rendered the music as some kind of horrible sideways duck instead of as a bounding rabbit. Lot of animals in there. She asked if anyone had any suggestions, and, feeling strongly enough about this point to risk being rude, I answered by saying that maybe she should keep a very strict time when that rhythm was first introduced so that the listener would be able to process it. She and apparently everyone else there were bewildered by this comment – they weren’t even consciously aware of the deviation from the rhythm. The more I tried to explain how hard it had been for me to hear the correct metrical scheme, the more shocked they seemed. They all, of course, already knew the piece. It was, I guess, a famous piece. I might know a bunch of classical music but as far as “literacy” goes, I’m pretty ill-equipped.

But my embarrassment – which was, I daresay, extremely mild – is not the point; the point is that music is a tough sell. On the page (or in the memory), something might seem so sturdily sensible that it can bear the strain of exaggeration, but in the world of the ear, things are much more fragile.

I’ll allow myself to finally stop writing now that I’ve gotten a little sleepy and thought of this silly-putty-ish metaphor: music in the world of the symbol, on the notated page or in the schematic diagram in the mind, is thickened and flexible, like rubber, and can be played back at any speed, exaggerated and stretched, thrown around the room and stomped on, still maintaining its essential shape. Furthermore, its essential shape is all that it maintains – the specifics of any given performance are all enveloped in its smooth surface. However, music heard is like a brittle, prickly skeletal structure. The “essential” shape can’t necessarily be distinguished from the rough edges, and the whole thing is susceptible to being crushed by even the slightest irregular pressure.

So – I think maybe no more reading from Moby-Dick until I can at least do the musical equivalent.

* I’m imagining an unmetered piece with various self-contained gestures hanging in space… such a piece could form a dramatic whole, and by virtue of being made of music and forming some sort of whole, we would want to say that it forms a musical whole. But this is “music” defined by its technical rudiments, not by its characteristic nature, and it seems important, to me, to make this distinction. Such a piece is, to my mind, characteristic not of music but of something else, that other thing, that 20th-century thing. If there is an essential character to “music,” to “drama,” to “poetry,” such that we can say that a painting is “musical” or “poetic,” I think there is a parallel essential character of “ametric 20th-centuryality” – the quality of being attuned to that which is neither human nor natural. Well, that’s a rough shot at it, anyway.

May 2, 2006

Russian Thing

I was about to say that this was an homage to The Mighty Handful, but that would suggest that I know what this is, and I don’t. In re: Russia, The middle section is direct, the rest is maybe more oblique.

It came pretty easily and, I will say, is more or less just what I intended it to be – which is not generally true of stuff I write – so I’m satisfied with it in that respect. Of course, not understanding my own intentions is another kind of problem, but one thing at a time, I suppose.

Raw score
Raw audio

May 2, 2006

Moby-Dick vocabulary, 8


engraft, ingraft, v.
2. fig. a. To implant (virtues, dispositions, sentiments) in the mind; to incorporate (a thing) into a previously existing system or unity, (an alien) into a race or community; and the like.
engrafted, ppl. a.
In the senses of the vb. lit. and fig.

tarpaulin, n.
1. a. A covering or sheet of canvas coated or impregnated with tar so as to make it waterproof, used to spread over anything to protect it from wet. Also, without a or pl., canvas so tarred; sometimes applied to other kinds of waterproof cloth. b. A sailor’s hat made of tarpaulin.

While I’m here I want to also mention this:
2. a. transf. A nickname for a mariner or sailor, esp. a common sailor. Now rare or arch.

because earlier in this project, I stupidly “pshaw”ed at the idea that tar meaning “sailor” might be derived from “tarpaulin.” This turns out to have been stupid for two reasons. First: sailors were, in fact, called “tarpaulins,” which I didn’t know and which makes the derivation seem perfectly likely. Second: “tarpaulin” is itself so named because it is made with tar – making the competing derivations for tar=sailor substantially identical – which of course makes perfect sense, but all these years of encountering tar-less tarpaulin referred to as “tarp” had deafened me to that obvious fact. OED, in fact, gives this as the etymology:

Generally thought to be f. TAR n. + PALL n. + -ING (as in netting, grating, and cf. AWNING)
The blackness of tarred canvas may have suggested its likeness to a funeral pall; though, in the absence of any instance of tar-pall, this origin must remain conjectural.

Fascinating. Let’s move on.

Naut. One of the ropes on each side of a gangway or ladder, used in ascending and descending a ship’s side, etc.

maintop, n.
Naut. 1. The top of a mainmast; a platform just above the head of the lower mainmast.

The city is elaborately fortified.

notoriety, n.
1. The state or condition of being notorious; the fact of being famous or well known, esp. for some reprehensible action, quality, etc.
I include this because I was under the mistaken impression that any non-negative use of “notoriety” was in error. This is not the case. Both the etymology and the quotations in the OED tell me that the word “notorious” originally did not have a negative connotation and simply meant “widely known.” The negative falls under esp. nowadays but there’s still certainly room for Father Mapple in there.

A fortress in Germany on a hill overlooking the Rhine. Not sure if the “perennial well of water” image is meant to tie in to Ehrenbreitstein, or even to real fortresses in general. Though it would seem reasonable that a well would be an important, or at least desirable, feature of fortresses.

cenotaph, n.
a. An empty tomb; a sepulchral monument erected in honour of a deceased person whose body is elsewhere.

lee coast
Well, I now know lee to mean “sheltered from the wind,” or in particular, “the sheltered side of something,” but it’s not entirely clear to me what it means when applied to a whole coast – a coast in a painting, no less. Is it just that an informed viewer tell which way the wind is blowing in the painting? I see in google that “lee coast” is a phrase that infrequently but occasionally appears in nautical talk, often in a generic sense not relating to any specific weather circumstances. Can’t find a definition. Help.

scud, n.
2. d. Ocean foam or spray driven by the wind; also transf. of ice or snow.

silver plate inserted into Victory’s plank where Nelson fell
Pictures here. The current plate is apparently brass. Either the plate’s been replaced or Melville got the material wrong – both seem likely enough.

helm, n.
1. The handle or tiller, in large ships the wheel, by which the rudder is managed; sometimes extended so as to include the whole steering gear.

bluff, a.
1. Presenting a broad flattened front; esp. a. Of a ship: Opposed to sharp or projecting, having little ‘rake’ or inclination, nearly vertical in the bows.

fiddle-headed, a.
a. Naut. Having a fiddle-head.
1. Naut. The ornamental carving at the bows of a vessel, the termination of which is a scroll turning aft or inward like the head of a violin.

beak, n.
7. The pointed and ornamented projection at the prow of ancient vessels, esp. of war galleys, where it was used in piercing and disabling the enemy’s vessels; now = BEAK-HEAD.

a voyage complete
This is a famous enough quote and makes fine sense already, but just reassure me: by “and not a voyage complete” he is saying that… a) the ship of the world has not a single completed voyage to its record; it is untested and this is its first trip; b) the current voyage is just begun rather than nearing completion; c) the current voyage will not return to its point of origin; d) something else. It’s a), right?

i &middot ii &middot 1 &middot 2 &middot 3 &middot 4 &middot 5 &middot 6 &middot 7