Saturday, September 30, 2006

Goblins and Elephants

The first musicology I ever wrote was my senior year in high school. In AP English we read E.M. Forster's Howard's End, and I was very taken by the passage in chapter five where the family attends a concert of Beethoven's Fifth. When they get to the third and fourth movements, Forster illustrates the personality differences between the two siblings, Helen and Tibby, by showing how they listen to Beethoven differently:
Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

Helen goes on to analyze the third and fourth movements quite extensively in terms of goblins and elephants. The goblins creep about the universe, "with increased malignity," until Beethoven scatters them about the universe.
He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Today I got to teach the Fifth Symphony for the first time. Just the second movement, and after a lengthy review of German Idealism--as Hedwig says, "You, Kant, always get what you want"--we only had time to discuss the augmented 6th chord at about m. 28. It's just a little bit of harmonic trickery, the Gb of the violins in previous measures re-spelled as F#, now the raised 6th of the augmented 6th chord. And augmented 6ths always lead to the dominant, which in this case is G major, the V of C major. So thus, with this one quick little re-spelling we are suddenly launched into the world of C major, the eventual gusts of splendor and superhuman joy in the last movement.

The professor of this course wanted us to point out the augmented 6th here because it is one of many ways in which these C major moments poke through. However, technically speaking, a moment like this isn't "real." We aren't actually in C major for more than a few measures, and it is just a little bit of trickery that makes us feel momentarily assured. But you know, that's just a bit of annoying Beethoven-ness. Beethoven wants you to feel like nothing is real unless you've worked hard at it. It's got to be built from the ground up, and you've got to feel the pain along the way--and after a solid forty-five minutes of Beethoven, you've felt the pain! There's no quick fix.

Beethoven's probably right, but I don't like it. I think he is asking the wrong questions. Beethoven, and the rhetoric of hard work and discipline, doesn't pay enough attention to small gestures that might not be a gust of superhuman joy and the magnificence of life and death, but nevertheless accomplishes no small amount of work of its own. Earlier today, Mary and I were listening to a bunch of recordings from the Kronos Quartet 25th anniversary box set; an excellent investment, incidentally, if one is looking to blow some money! One of the CDs is a recording of Morton Feldman's Quartet for Piano and Strings. It clocks in at seventy-nine minutes of near-stillness and quietude, the music almost imperceptible at times. It does have its own ethic of discipline and hard work, since after all it does require an enormous amount of physical effort to play so quietly. But rather than Beethoven's model of extreme ups and downs, with goblins and elephants, the Feldman quartet models a life of quiet pleasure and appreciation for subtle beauty. And if music was a world, I'd much rather life in a Feldman string quartet than in the Fifth Symphony. Hard work just can't be sustained forever, or if it can be, it is at the expense of pleasure. I've definitely done a lot of hard work this year, and although it's gotten me to some good places, it's not going to get me everywhere.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Wake Me Up, Before I Go-Go

You know, it's good to be back in Los Angeles. I always forget how pretty our campus is, even when my new parking assignment has me wading through the school marching band practice to get to the department. And even though I have been driving the five miles back and forth to school now for over three years, I still don't really get tired of the drive. For one thing, how many people's daily commute includes not only the site of Jan (as in, Jan and Dean's) horrifyingly ironic 1966 car crash at Dead Man's Curve, but also the public bathroom where George Michael was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer? Pretty cool, I think.

Plus, last night, at the local greasy diner, I had a seared ahi tuna sandwich. I don't think greasy diners anywhere else in the country have seared ahi tuna sandwiches.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

London Bridge is Falling Down

On our last day in London, Mary and I took a break from surveying horses to go down to the the Tate Modern to see the big Kandinsky show. Snap review: I like Kandinsky; who doesn't? It seemed like a fairly thorough overview of his work, with an impressive number of major paintings. The exhibition subtitle was "The Path to Abstraction," and there was indeed a predictable emphasis on his chronological progression from early impressionist landscapes to the more abstract stuff. I'm not sure that was particularly enlightening, but I did like one room where they displayed one of his major paintings alongside all the sketches and studies for it. I imagine it is rare to see all those parts together in one place, so that's neat.

Kandinsky is not what I want to talk about today, however. Because on the way to the exhibition, we got off at the London Bridge tube stop. And thus, two songs immediately entered my head, one old, one new:
London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.

and then,
How come every time you come around
My London London Bridge want to go down
Like London London want you to go down
Like London London be going down

The first is a nursery rhyme, the second is from this summer's hit song "London Bridge," by Fergie, on her first solo outing. Fergie's version, of course, has been the inescapable hit of the summer. The first time I heard it, it sounded to me like it was the same basic idea behind Fergie's hit with the Black-Eyed Peas, whose chorus goes "My hump, my hump, my lady lady lumps." Which is to say, it pushes inanity to the point where it becomes so shocking you can't help but be attracted to it. As such, it was in the same vein of songs like Kelis's "Milkshake," or maybe some tracks by 50 Cent.

But man, "London Bridge" has been everywhere. I have to ask myself, what else is interesting about it? I mean, for one thing, there is the fact that it wears its intertextuality on its sleeve, which is the academic way of saying it rips a lot of other songs off. There is the lyrical allusion to "Me So Horny," which, interestingly enough, can be found in two or three other pop songs on the charts right now. There is the more subtle nod to Missy Elliot, particularly the Missy of "Work It." (Really, go listen to the Missy track--it's hard to tell the two apart, except that of course Missy can eat Fergie for breakfast any day.)

Then there is the issue of historicity. I've blogged about this before, and it is something that a number of critics have noted about Top 40 music right now. It is the "simple" idea that under postmodernity, our sense of history has collapsed. As Fredric Jameson writes, it is a sense of "historical deafness," punctuated by "a series of spasmodic and intermittent, but desperate, attempts at recuperation." Of the pop hits of this summer, I would put John Mayer and Jessica Simpson's tributes to, respectively, Curtis Mayfield and Madonna into this category of recuperative attempts.

But London Bridge? Hard to say. There is, of course, the titular object. As is well-known now, both the cover and the video for this song feature Fergie dancing in front of a bridge in London (see above). Unfortunately, it's not actually the London Bridge, but rather the Tower Bridge, a Victorian construction that is very pretty and elaborate, and suitably old-looking (the Victorians could collapse historicity like nobody's business), but is unfortunately quite different from the London Bridge.

The London Bridge is a much more pedestrian affair. As any Wikipediast will tell you, it has gone through three main incarnations. The "Old" London Bridge was a gothic stone construction that crossed the Thames from 1029-1831. As the nursery rhyme tells us, this bridge was falling down and the enterprising Victorians put up a replacement in 1831, the "New" London Bridge. This bridge was then replaced in 1973 by what most call the "Ugly" London Bridge, the current incarnation pictured above that is essentially a freeway on-ramp plopped over a river.

But what is fabulously postmodern about the saga of the London Bridge is that the "New" London Bridge was not destroyed. No, in a triumph of late globalized capitalism, it was sold to the highest bidder, taken apart brick by brick, and then reassembled in a new home. And that new home was none other than Lake Havasu, Arizona, where today it is surrounded by blonde coeds flashing their breasts at the Girls Gone Wild cameras in the shadow of the poor old London Bridge.

Which finally brings us to the ultimately unanswerable question of this song. At a party I was at tonight, the claim was made that Fergie's "London Bridge" is part of a trend of recent popular songs which celebrate powerful female sexuality, a trend that stems from Christina Aguilera's album Stripped and perhaps some fin-du-millennium hip-hop by Missy Elliot and Lil' Kim, music widely seen as representing a turn away from the de-sexualized ideology of Britney Spears, the boy bands, and "Genie in a Bottle" Xtina. The argument was made that the lyrics, which do indeed seem to involve somebody performing sexual acts on the singer, somehow represent a positive vision of assertive feminine sexuality. On the more performative sound, Mary pointed out to me that maybe it isn't the lyrics, but the ferociousness with which Fergie launches into the chorus that gives us an attractive sense of power. But how does this all tie together? From medieval London to Girls Gone Wild, from "Hit Me Baby One More Time" to "I'm a Slave 4 U"?

So yeah, it's a complicated text. If anybody has any other ideas about it, let me know.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ode to the Crab Tower

Tomorrow, we return to Los Angeles. It'll be very nice to be back. I just was flipping through this year's calendar, and did a bit of counting: I spent 78 days living out of a suitcase this year. If you're doing the math, that's a little more than 20% of the year. It does make me appreciate the little things that come with being at home, like having all my clothes available to me, not just the five shirts I've been wearing since early August. And an ironing board. And Tivo. (Memo to Violet Vixen: by any chance, did you Tivo Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Both times I tried to watch it this week, I missed the first twenty minutes.)

But I digress. I started this post because there is one thing that is always missing from my life when I am away from Washington, DC. It is a ten dollar creation of pure goodness, available at Clyde's of Georgetown, called the Crab Tower. The menu description just doesn't do it justice:
jumbo lump crab salad, seaweed salad, tobiko, coconut-curry rice cake and wasabi-sweet chili mayonnaise

I just can't tell you how delicious it is. The combination of crab, seawood, and rice cake is the most absurdly tasty thing you will ever taste. Back when Anne was a server at Clyde's and we were there a lot, I used to eat that thing three or four times a week. Now that Anne has moved to Mexico, my Crab Tower consumption has gone down a bit, but I still cherish the occasions. I'm considering the possibility of ordering a dozen, freezing them, and shipping them back home.

That is all.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Productivity of a Sort

I have to say, I have not been as productive this second half of the summer as I had hoped. The plan was to come back in the fall with a good solid draft of my first chapter. That could still happen, I suppose, but it probably going to require some serious writing when I get back to Los Angeles next week.

On the non-essential productivity front, however, I spent all day yesterday at the Library of Congress, poking around in the organizational archives of the NAACP. It was a really random idea: a historian who works on McCarthyism noted in some footnote that it might be interesting to research how McCarthyism affected the NAACP. That's interesting in itself, first of all, but it also occurred to me that the NAACP might be a good source of discourse on mainstream, respectable African-American life of the early fifties, the same sort of discourse of which my sweet gospel people were also part (that is, as opposed to those surly R&B types that we all know and love today.) Maybe there would be interesting representations of African-American masculinity, some fun pamphlets or something, I don't know. It just seemed like maybe I could poke around in the archives, and maybe something interesting would turn up.

Did anything turn up? Stay tuned for the dissertation!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Happiness is a Warm Laptop

I think I have finally accomplished one of my major goals in life. Yesterday I bought a wireless router for Mary's father, and today installed it. Now, I can cheerfully chug away on my laptop in the living room, and resume some semblance of a wired life. It makes me very happy.

We are slowly adjusting to life in Northern Virginia. It was a big adjustment, especially for Mary's innate DC snobbery that anything south of the Potomac automatically equals suburban sprawl, bad driving, and the NRA. But with the huge population growth of DC in recent years, the inner ring of suburbs in Virginia have become much more urban and liberal. And the street we are living on is pleasantly leafy and residential, with nice houses and even a few shops within walking distance. Last night we bumped into a bowling alley by accident, and whiled away the night with a pitcher of Yuengling and several sub-100 games. Good times.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Hegemony is Leaky, and So Are You

For the past few weeks, I have had something of a blogging writer's block. I have this long exegesis of Fergie's "London Bridge" that I've been writing on and off all month, and it keeps getting more tangled and confusing, so I think I just need to set it aside for now, and take a deep breath.

I am, however, alive. Currently in Washington, DC, with only intermittent internet access. Apologies to those who have emailed me in vain, and to those to whom I owe various tasks. Both shall happen at some point.

In the meantime, I highly recommend Michael Berube's recent posts about Raymond William's famous essay "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory." Williams is one of my favorite writers, this is one of my favorite essays, and Michael does a great job explaining things. I've read the Williams's essay dozens of times--heck, I actually taught part of it to my class this summer--but learned many new things from these posts. So, if you need some light end-of-summer reading, go to!