Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sir Edward

Can I just say how cool it is that the twenty pound bill in the U.K. features a picture of Edward Elgar? I mean, it's not like the British have a proud tradition of classical music. And yet, they feature one of their few big names on a rather major piece of currency. It's hard to imagine a piece of U.S. currency featuring a twentieth-century artist! I'd like to see Aaron Copland's shiny bald head on the fifty dollar bill some day; who really feels the need to commemorate Ulysses Grant these days?

Tragedy on the A1001

The horse surveying adventures continue apace: we've been to Hickin, Harpenden, St. Albans, Sandridgebury, and my favorite name, Ickleford. The horse people run the gamut from friendly to quirky to rude. We went to a horse show in Tring to do some clipboard surveying, and I ended up giving advice on how to get into vet school to a fifteen-year-old Brit. We went to a stable in Thrall's End, run by an American couple, who had not only horses but a suite of professional offices such as dentists and the like; would you like a free toothbrush with your horse? One stable was on the grounds of vaguely sinister-sounding company called something like "Ovebra", but Google doesn't give me any info so either I mis-remember the name or it is an MI5 front.

However, the most pertinent event since my last post is that we had a car accident on Thursday. We are both perfectly fine. The car is less fine, but fixable. It went down like this: we were driving to a stable outside of St. Albans, and came to a roundabout off the A1001. Mary is a pro at these roundabouts, which, if you've never been to England, are the primary way the British route traffic, rather than streetlights. So we get to this roundabout, which Mary has driven through many times before. This circle actually does have traffic lights as well, which regulate your entry into the circle. We were waiting in the line of cars, and when our lane started to move, we cheerfully followed.

However, it turned out that actually the lights were turned off for roadwork, and we were actually in a yield situation--the cars in front of us had simply taken advantage of a gap in traffic. Mary was entering the circle, and I looked to the right and saw this gigantic lorry bearing down on us. It honked, Mary tried to get out of the way, but it rubbed against the front driver's side of our poor little Citroen. If Mary hadn't gotten out of the way as much as she did, it probably would have smashed straight into her door, so that is a little scary to think about. We were obviously at fault, but it was also obviously an ugly traffic pattern.

But, we're all fine. And the good news is that of course the lorry was completely unscathed, and the driver was very nice. Also nice was a road worker who got the car down to a pull out spot, and nicest of all was Mary's mechanic, who came out personally in the tow truck and was very soothing, even going out of his way to drop us off in Barnet. As best as I can tell, the damage didn't involve the engine--it just knocked out the front headlight, tore off part of the bumper, and pushed in the side of the car.

In the meantime, we have resumed our busy driving schedule using a roommate's car. No pain no gain!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Story of Catlips

This past week the missus and I have been busy with her final year research project, a survey of horse owners and equine veterinarians in hopes of determining attitudes towards physiotherapy--that is, alternative treatments such as acupuncture, chiropracticy, equine massage, etc. Physiotherapy is not as popular in the U.K. as it probably should be, and so the idea is to find out if this is due to ignorance, miseducation, or veterinary malfeasance. The survey is limited to the county of Hertfordshire, and the distribution process involves us driving around to every single livery stable and equine veterinary practice in the phone book.

It's actually a lot of fun. Hertfordshire is an odd, liminal area. The county includes urbanized tendrils of London, stretching up into cities like Watford and Barnet, satellite cities like St. Albans, quaint villages on the border with Essex and Cambridgeshire, and lots of very rural farming and grazing land. (Historical trivia: the imaginary line between Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire counties dates back to the division of the Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex!) We have been spending about five hours a day in Mary's little Citroen, puttering about down tiny little country roads in search of horse. It is very nice to meet so many British people for a change, especially since British horse people tend to be a bit oddball.

Yesterday, we were trying to find a stable evocatively named "Catlips" in the area of Chorleywood, near the western edge of the county. (Historical trivia: Chorleywood was the center of British Quakerdom before they all emigrated to Pennsylvania.) We have our trusty A-Zed of Hertfordshire, which showed that the farm was in the middle of a big patch of green, completely roadless. There was one vague line that seemed to indicate a driveway, so we tried to find it. Exiting off the A1, we (and by "we", I mean Mary) proceeded down a series of smaller and smaller roads, until we were hurtling around on a path barely big enough for our own car, let alone the occasional oncoming traffic. We kept on not being able to find the turnoff, so we slowly circled around the green patch on the map. Finally, we saw a little dirt driveway that indeed bumbled its way into a meadow, and eventually lead to a farm.

The farm? A bunch of rickety old wooden buildings, an aggressive rooster pecking away at the ground, and a grassy area in which were parked at least twenty decomposing motorhomes, lying fallow and gradually being overtaken by the woods. If we were in the U.S., this sort of scenario would make city people such as us think scary things about banjos, but this being the U.K., we quite had no idea what to expect. We poked our heads into the house trying to find a person, and found ourselves in the middle of a crowd of people who were all pawing away at a gigantic pile of horse boots, saddles, leads, and whatnot. Turns out that there was an unofficial used horse gear shop being run out of this farm, and there were several families checking out the merchandise. Mary waded through the crowd to hand off the surveys, and I waited outside, where a middle-aged British man in wellies commiserated with me. "Like a sale at Harrod's, it is, with these women!" he remarked companionably, although his accent was so thick he might actually have been telling me to haul my American butt out of town before he got out the shotgun. I just smiled back.

Mary successfully handed off her surveys, however, so we trundled our way back to the A1 and civilization. We never found out what was up with the name "Catlips." The mind boggles.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Musicology in Action?

Who says musicology isn't relevant?

There was a very bizarre little item in the news today. Apparently, at the World AIDS conference going on in Toronto right now, a study was presented which investigated the correlation between HIV infection and musical taste. According to the article, teenage boys who listen to "gospel, techno, and pop" are more at risk for HIV than teenage boys who listen to "hip hop, reggae, reggaeton, rap and rhythm and blues."

Now, it was very hard to tell what this study is actually about from this quick little wire feed article, which was mostly just a few quotes from the study's author, Miguel Munoz-Laboy--all of which sounded like they were taken a little out of context. I did find the study's abstract, which tells us that this is actually an ongoing ethnography of urban youth cultures focusing on masculinity and sexual risk. The presentation at the conference was on one aspect of that project, hip-hop as a "narrative of masculinity."

Obviously, the musicologist in me--as well as the queer activist still in me, buried beneath the layers of graduate school, who really cares about the real-world implications of this study--has a lot of questions. Most of them are completely unanswerable in lieu of a finished, published project, rather than just an abstract and a half-ass interview. I do sense that it is a well-meaning project, and I like the fact that an empirical public health study such as this is taking music culture seriously. Obviously nobody is claiming that listening to one genre of music "causes" certain risky sexual behaviors. Munoz-Laboy's claim is that involvement in certain "scenes" tend to correlate with risky behaviors. That makes intuitive sense-- a "scene" is a community of people typically linked by an appreciation for a certain genre of music. And that "appreciation" is important--it is the way certain people appreciate music that matters almost more than what is being appreciated. A scene is an analytical tradition, not so different than, say, set theorists or Schenkerians.

Interpreting music is a social phenomenon--we don't call them theoretical "schools" for nothing--so if one's object is to study social behavior, such as sex, it seems particularly important to look at how these kids are listening to music. And that gets to one of the obvious problems of the survey as presented so far. By dividing up popular music into all these genres, they are doing the musical interpretation for the kids. I mean, can you really put "pop" music and "rhythm and blues" and "hip-hop" into different categories today? I think not. Yes, plenty of people do, and I have no doubt that the study attempted to take its cue from how the teenagers talk about their music. But I do think that if you are going to study such a complicated cultural problem, as this study thankfully attempts to do, you need to also look specifically at the music on its own terms. Because any sort of social behavior inevitably bleeds into other social behaviors, and studying how these kids listen to music might tell us something about how they do other things. Otherwise, you're just randomly correlating data, which can lead to also sorts of silliness.

And might actually give you some ideas for how to fix things. I know a high school teacher in Los Angeles named Patrick Camangian, who uses hip-hop lyrics to teach his young charges critical thinking. That is, he didn't just use hip-hop to gain street cred with them. (As a former drop-out of the school at which he taught, he already had that!). He uses it to teach them analytical skills, and critical thinking. And the optimist in me does think that if you can learn how to be critical in one part of life, you might start to be critical in others.

I sound awfully formalist, don't I? Oh well. I'm very open to opinions others might have about this. Really, I just think everyone needs a musicologist in their lives!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Newark Cat Blogging

As I type, I'm sitting in Newark Liberty International Airport. (Sidenote: what kind of airport name is that?!) I had to pay a few bucks to have a day's worth of internet access, but as I got to my flight three hours early, it seemed worth it. Today, I drove from the Adirondacks down I-87 (the Los Angeleno in me just had to resist typing "the 87") to Newark, stopping briefly in Woodstock to take a few more research-y photographs of the Maverick Concert Hall. Last time I was there, two years ago, it was deserted, and I was able to cheerfully poke around. Today, it turned out that I arrived twenty minutes before the Tokyo String Quartet was due to play a concert. So I couldn't quite poke around as much, but it was neat to see all the people there. Paid tickets get you a seat on a bench in the shed, but for free you can sit outside the shed in a little clearing in the woods called "Rock Bottom." A line of little old ladies were primly sitting in their lawn chairs in Rock Bottom, looking like they had been there for hours to get front row seats.

So in a few hours, I am Barnet bound! Hopefully, I will not be blown up by a stray bottle of Gatorade en route. But as I sit here, I realize I miss the kitties a lot, and although I obviously don't have any current photos, I remembered that I have a short little movie I have not shared with the world. The setting for this little clip is the morning after we had a party in our apartment. Pablo thought that sitting in the empty chip bowl was about the most fun he'd ever had. I thought it could be more fun.


My flight has been delayed five hours. That's what I get for joking about airplane security. I'm sorry. Exploding Gatorade® bottles are not funny. The Transportation Security Administration is a righteous force for truth and justice. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Room with a View

I write from possibly the best place I have ever worked. I'm at a study carrel in the Joan Weill Adirondack Library, which is on the campus of Paul Smiths College on the banks of Lower St. Regis Lake. I'm next to a window that faces out over the lake, with a view of St. Regis Mountain. And the window is open, so there is a breeze coming in off the lake, and I can here the water splashing up against the birch trees on the shore. All this, and free wireless internet. I'm in heaven.

Back on the homestead, I only have dial-up access that trickles down wire like mud. So there probably won't be too many updates this week. I made it safely to the Adirondacks, via two planes, one rental car, and one ferry ride across Lake Champlain. I love that ferry ride--it's only fifteen minutes, costs only $8.50, and gives you a chance to stretch your legs and watch the sunset.

Up here, things are basically the same as always. A lot of lounging on the porch, reading on the dock, the occasional sailboat race, regular meals with the extended family--12:30pm and 6:30pm sharp, every day. It's a nice existence. Tomorrow is the regular Tuesday sailboat race, but the boats I typically race go on Thursdays, so I'll just take a motor boat out and saunter about the lake to watch. Wednesday night is the annual Moonlight race, where we all drift around the lake at night, lit by the moon and fueled by the occasional thermos of Irish coffee. My mother and I will probably climb the local mountain at some point, as I have every summer since I was six years old.

Before all this begins, however, I have to finish my review! Back to "work".

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Adirondack Bound

I tell you, one thing about all the travelling I've been doing for the past four years, I pack an efficient suitcase! This was one of my tougher jobs. I needed to pack for my week with the family in the Adirondacks (warm days, very chilly nights, potential for athletic activity and snooty cocktail parties), four weeks in London (warm, rainy), a wedding (father's hand-me-down suit), and two weeks or so in Washington, DC (hot hot hot). I think I've got it all in my trusty suitcase, although I suspect it will be overweight for domestic flights. Luckily, the prepared traveler is never without a cheap foldable duffel bag in which to toss heavy items these days.

It's been a busy time. Lots of laundry, lots of cleaning of my room (I HATE coming home to a messy room), a haircut, thirty final exams graded, sundry responsibilities taken care of, bills paid...phew.

But now, in a few hours, I am off for summer!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hips Don't Lie

Yesterday was my last lecture of the summer. We covered nineties hip-hop--NWA to Jay-Z--and then spent the last half of class discussing the top ten singles on the iTunes Downloads chart from last week. I had originally wanted to assign the top ten singles on the Billboard chart, but the singles chart for last week didn't have a single rock-ish number on it, and I really wanted to have at least a little bit of diversity. The "Most Downloaded" chart had John Mayer's recent single on it, and a song by The Fray, a very dull alt rock band.

In fact, here are the songs, just for posterity:

1. Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"
2. Ashlee Simpson, "Invisible"
3. Nelly Furtado & Timbaland, "Promiscuous"
4. The Pussycat Dolls featuring Big Snoop Dogg, "Buttons"
5. Christina Aguilera, "Ain't No Other Man"
6. Jessica Simpson, "A Public Affair"
7. The Fray, "Over My Head (Cable Car)"
8. Cassie, "Me & U"
9. Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean, "Hips Don't Lie"
10. John Mayer, "Waiting on the World to Change"

It's really fascinating to try and look at this rather arbitrary assemblage of songs, and try to construct some sort of greater point out of it. I'm not sure we really succeeded. Couple things though:

  • Generic boundaries are obviously quite blurred. Many of these songs would vaguely be considered R&B, but the line between R&B and Pop and Hip-Hop is not a particularly clear or useful line these days. When you think of the top songs from the early nineties, this would not have been the case. The top artists of the nineties all had very strong generic identifications: we all know what genres Nirvana, Garth Brooks, Metallica, and Dr. Dre fall into. But Shakira?

  • The postmodern collapse of historicity seems to still be in effect. In this list we have allusions to early hip-hop (Nelly Furtado conjures up "The Message", Christina Aguilera works with DJ Premier), a near exact recreation of Curtis Mayfield (John Mayer), another near exact recreation of early Madonna (Jessica Simpson), and of course Gnarls Barkley, the songwriter of whom made his name mashing together the The Beatles and Jay-Z's Black Album to create The Grey Album.

  • As usual, people are really concerned with Ashlee Simpson's relationship to authenticity. No surprise here, although I was surprised with the intense emotional hatred some have for her, but not for her sister. Given that both sisters are more or less doing the same thing, it seems to be that it is that matter of genre is still really important in some ways. Dance music, it's okay to lip-synch. Rock music, not so much.

    Any other points to be drawn from this list?