Wednesday, January 31, 2007

That Special Dissertation

When I was little, and pictured myself writing my dissertation, I somehow had this image of the experience as being special, somehow. Like, I would have an office where I would have all my notes and books set up. And maybe a bulletin board where I would pin up index cards to organize things. Because I would have spent years doing research that would be carefully catalogued away in file cabinets. It certainly wouldn't be like writing a seminar paper, where you do just enough research to get by and hash out a few thousand words on some random subject by the seat of your pants.

Well, you know what? Writing a dissertation is not special. An office? Who was I kidding, graduate students don't have offices! I write at my desk crowded next to my bed at home, the same spot where I have written dozens of seminar papers, exam answers, and blog posts. And carefully assembling research and organizing it all beautifully? Hah! I'm just sitting down and typing it all out the best I can. Granted I've done a lot more research on this topic than on anything else I've ever written on, but still, I feel like at any moment my brain is going to get tired of holding all this information, and stop working.

So, to summarize: writing a dissertation? Not that special. Not unpleasant, but not special.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Don't Mess With Texas

Alright, the self-pity is over, and never to be spoken of again. I am back in the game. There are errands to be run, books to be read, tasks to be realized, new dissertation chapters to be wrought.

But first a request in the comments to my previous self-pitying post, from the lovely chelsea girl. She asks, in the context of pairing poems with pop songs for an English lit class, if there are any good songs in which a woman kills her husband. Another commenter has already suggested Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun," which is an interesting choice. I had always assumed it was about a child abuse victim killing her father, but re-listening to it I realize that it is unclear who Janie actually kills--it could very well be that her abused childhood causes her to kill some (slightly) more innocent victim.

My first offhand suggestion? The Dixie Chick's classic "Goodbye Earl," with its fabulous chorus:
Goodbye Earl
Those black-eyed peas
They tasted all right to me Earl
You're feeling weak
Why don't you lay down
and sleep Earl
Ain't it dark
Wrapped up in that tarp Earl

Off topic: I first heard this song in college, and it was played to me by my partner's aunt. This lady is a very nice woman, but has quite conservative politics--she certainly would be proud to say that Bush is from her state, if he was, which he isn't. And I think she would reject the label feminist as well. But man, she loved this song, and the message of empowerment it gave. When Natalie Maines gets to the point where snarls, "Earl had to die!" she would sing along at the top of her lungs, and smirk at her husband.

But does anybody else have any suggestions for woman-on-man uxoricide in popular music?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Knockin' on Heaven's Door

I have been dying since Sunday. The flu, maybe just some little virus, who knows. Mary got it first, then both my roommate and I succumbed, so it is clearly contagious--keep your distance, people. The first three days were spent feverish and comatose in bed, unable to move. Tuesday I dragged my laptop into my bed so that I could peck out, one painful word at a time, an abstract to submit to a conference. Wednesday, the fever broke, the congestion arrived. Today, I managed to go to school and drag myself through a few official duties. Tomorrow I have to teach for an hour, and then I can go home and sleep until Tuesday.

Blegh. I have not been this sick since...I don't remember when. Blegh.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Universe Runs Amok

One of the chapters of my dissertation is essentially about the concept of universality: there are many things in life that are so entrenched in people's belief systems that we assume their universality. The classic example, for instance, is the racial category "white." Whiteness is always assumed. When "we" see a white man on the street (and by we, I mostly mean white people, but the dominance of this ideology is such that this is not guaranteed) we might say to a friend, "There is a man." When "we" see a black man on the street, we are likely to say, "there is a black man." This presumption of universality is a classic way of maintaining power. Richard Taruskin likes to point out that when Germans wrote German music, it was called romanticism, but when Czechs wrote music, it was called nationalism. The most popular music on the charts is always called pop music, no matter what it sounds like, whereas all of the other music charts are still basically defined by the minority communities who listen to it: Country (rural white folk), R&B (originally called "Race music" by Billboard), and so on. My chapter looks at this concept at one particular moment: in pop music right after World War II, the world of people like Patti Page, Jo Stafford, Vera Lynn, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, and so on. As I have blogged before, this music was so universalized, it did not even have a name. And it was played just as Joseph McCarthy was using that same power of universality to fictionalize a new vision of the United States, a tabula rasa from which was wiped any people who were not "everyday Americans." Musicologists call this "covert and casual values," the rest of the academic world calls it hegemony.

I was reminded of this by an article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times about the Bush Administration's recent about-face in administering the Iraq colony. Like many, I have grown disillusioned over the past six years of war, and often don't take the time to stay informed about the mundane details of the occupation. Randomly, however, the new general in charge of coalition forces in Iraq is a cousin of mine (just by marriage, and I don't think we've ever met, but still) so I gave the article a read.

There are a lot of shocking things about what is happening in Iraq. But this article in particular highlighted the fact that our nation is still under the sway of Cold War ideologies. And the two biggest keywords are the post-WII concepts of "democracy" and "capitalism."

Now neither capitalism nor democracy is a natural thing. Neither systems have existed forever, and neither will continue to do so for all future. As a good leftie I am obviously a fan of the latter, suspicious of the first. But I do at least recognize that these are simply ideologies, and not realities. They are culturally produced. If you were to take a town in, say, feudal England, and tell the inhabitants that there are no longer any feudal loyalties, you would not suddenly have a democratic society or a capitalist economy. Ideologies take time to worm themselves into people; after all Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, and I don't think capitalism became completely universalized in this country until the Clinton administration. (Thanks, Bill.) And the United States still does not give the vote to all of its citizens, nor is its leader elected democratically.

And how do these entrenched ideologies work in the world at large? One of the stories this article tells is of the state-run factories in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Iraq was, after all, a basically national-socialist state, and the economy was heavily controlled by the government. When the United States occupied the country, they closed down all institutions run by the government, including the factories. This of course left thousands unemployed. The article tells the story of an American named Timothy Carney who was sent to Iraq to run the "Ministry of Mines and Materials." Quite reasonably, he assumed that it would be a good idea to repair and reopen these factories. Unemployed and impoverished Iraqis=badness.

But no, the American authorities in Baghdad didn't allow it. Because, although supposedly we were invading Iraq to install Ideology #1 (democracy), we were more covertly there to install Ideology #2 (capitalism). And so, no government money was going to be used on these factories. Instead, these spectacularly hubristic Americans assumed that "private investors" would buy the plants, repair them, and hire workers. Of course, there would be a gap in which there would be higher unemployment, but that magical invisible hand of Adam Smith would reach down from on high and set things straight before long. Because, after all, capitalism is natural, and inevitable.

Well, guess what. It wasn't. Six years later, the factories are still closed, unemployment and poverty have reached untenable levels, and violence has inevitably skyrocketed accordingly. There is neither democracy, nor capitalism, nor even everyday safety. 14th century feudalism would be better than this. Our nation's belief in the universality of our ideologies has amazingly managed to beat Saddam at his own game. Saddam tried so hard to run his country into the ground, but it took us, with our democracy and our capitalism, to really do the job properly.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I Am Sitting in a Classroom

One of the things I love about teaching music is the chance to play great music for students. That sounds obvious, but it really is a special thing. Particularly in a large public university like mine, where the undergraduate students have had their lives so thoroughly instrumentally-rationalized for the past 18 years, and where even the music majors are on a frantic pace to earn credits, get good grades, accomplish the right extra-curricular activities, and do the right internships, particularly in this situation I love making my students sit still for a moment to listen to music. It's not like a lecture, there is no note-taking. It's not a film, which tends to zonk them into television-viewing mode. It is one of the few times in their hectic lives when they have to plop down, be quiet, and be mindful.

The professor I am currently TAing for values this as well, and has no problem with using copious amounts of class time just for listening. The entire Tristan Prelude? Sure. A few scenes from Boris Gudonov? Yes!

But I just want to briefly pay tribute to the very first music class I ever took in college, where I learned the value of listening carefully and quietly to music. I had been a musician in high school, but not a very good one, and when I went off to college I didn't really intend on studying music. History, maybe, or Political Science. But I had an spare slot in my schedule, after French II, History 201 ("Medieval Europe"), and a special freshman seminar in early Arthurian literature. So on a whim, I registered for a class called "Introduction to Experimental Music." It seemed like it might add some pleasant variety to my life.

The first day of class, I nervously made my way to a cavernous dungeon of a classroom, a former recording studio buried several stories underground. It was a large class, probably about a hundred people. The professor was an elderly man with a bushy moustache and a pronounced stutter. His name was Alvin Lucier, and although I had never heard of him, when I flipped through our textbook--a xeroxed copy of Michael Nyman's then-out-of-print Experimental Music--I saw that he was mentioned frequently in the text as an important composer. It was a great class, and his stutter soon became permanently impressed in our brains. Like most speech impediments, it seemed to get worse when he had to speak loudly, or to a large crowd, and especially when words began with the letters "r" or "s." He never talked about it, though, and we soon got used to the long pauses and quirky rhythm the stutter gave his lecturing.

Fairly early on, Lucier played for us his piece for which he is most famous: I Am Sitting in a Room. Many of my readers will know it, but some won't, so let me describe it. It is a tape piece, and starts with Lucier sitting in his apartment in Middletown, recording himself speaking this text:
I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again, until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves, so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration as a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

And that's exactly what he does. This text recorded, he then plays the recording out loud, and with another tape machine recorded the sound of the text being played in the room. Rinse, wash, repeat. As he records, plays, and records, certain frequencies of the recording begin to be absorbed by his room, and others are amplified. By the end of the forty-five minutes, you can no longer make out what he is saying, and you are left only with a beautiful wash of ringing sound. You can listen to the original fifteen minute recording from 1969here.

Like any piece Alvin has ever done, it was a very conceptually clear work. He picks a process, and sticks to it. But also like all of his works, there is a surprising amount of hermeneutic interest. What could be dry, almost scientific music, actually contains within it multitudes of personal meanings. For even when recording himself speak, Lucier stutters--the "r" of the word "rhythm" is particularly obvious, and you can hear him leaning heavily on several other words. And so this piece of music is not only about demonstrating the physical properties of the room, as he says, but also smoothing out his speech. And although one critic has read this as his attempt to consign himself to "sonic oblivion," it was always clear to me that for Lucier himself it was nothing of the sort. I still remember him standing in front of the classroom, with the lights turned down low, and playing us the entire 1980 recording. He looked so proud. He had never spoken to us about his stutter, and he didn't need to. We could hear it, and for Lucier just hearing was the important thing. And once you just heard his stutter as a sound, you realize that it can sound beautiful. But what I like even more about Lucier's music, more than Cage's rather stern formalism, is that the lesson to be drawn is not that all sounds are beautiful. Lucier was proud to have created these beautiful sounds with his own voice. Sounds are beautiful because they involve people. I think that is the important lesson I learned in that class.

In the craziness of my first semester of college, his stutter soon became a comforting presence, a reminder that for twice a week, for one and a half hours, I could sit quietly in his dimly lit classroom and just listen to sounds. I learned a lot about music history in that class; nine years later I still occasionally consult my notes. But as a teacher, I always hope to reproduce that moment where we can also sit quietly and listen to one another.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Writing by the Numbers

It's been a nice long holiday break, but now it's time to get serious. The deadline for applications for a Very Important Fellowship are next week, as is the deadline for abstracts for a Very Important Conference. This fellowship application has necessitated the writing from scratch of yet another version of my dissertation proposal. The original was 25 pages, another fellowship required 5 pages, and this one requires 12-15. I love this business we call academia.

Want to know some statistics about the dissertation chapter I am sending in?

Words: 18389
Characters: 96687
Paragraphs: 211
Sentences: 786

On average, I have 4.6 sentences per paragraph, 23 words per sentence, and 5.1 characters per word. Plus, Microsoft Word thinks that my chapter is at a 12th grade reading level. I'm not sure what to make of that. I'm not going to tell you what percentage of my sentences are in what the program thinks is a passive voice, because that would be showing weakness.

It is a scary thought that in writing this one chapter, I have pressed the keys on my keyboard almost 100,000 times.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I Miss This Cat

His name is Snowy, and he belongs to Mary's stepmother. He is a Himalayan Persian, and he is spectacular.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Go Team

I'm not sure I've ever been more proud of my department. I only wish I could say I took the course, but unfortunately I just audited it last quarter.

I will say, obviously nobody listens to crackpots like the Young American Foundation when they issue press releases like this, but I am disappointed that the Los Angeles Times chose to publish this op-ed in favor of the list. My favorite line is when the unfortunate author ("Charlotte Allen, author of The Search for the Historical Jesus") attempts to define what this crazy "queer musicology" is: "a new field dating from the 1990s based in part on the idea that if you're gay, then music by gay composers such as Benjamin Britten will sound different to you than it would if you were straight." Yup. That's exactly what we do. I'm just going to just save time and print that on my future syllabus.

Never fear, Ms. Allen, you have your friends in the academy. Really, it's a good thing, all of this. Soon I can write the sequel to my dissertation, "Music and McCarthyism 2: This Time We Mean It, Godless Pinkos."

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Morty, oh Morty

Morton Feldman is so hard to write about. I've managed to avoid writing about him with any seriousness thus far. I've done John Cage to death, I've done Earle Brown in some detail, I've spent some quality time in the David Tudor papers, and if pressed to say something intelligent about Christian Wolff I could definitely pull through. But Morty? Luckily, I have not had a gun pressed to my forehead with the knowledge that if I simply talked about Feldman's length and quietude I would be shot. But it is going to happen some day. My grand plan is to write a book some day about the New York School (my advisor loves it when I talk about my next book instead of my current dissertation), and so I'm just not going to be able to avoid it.

It's not that I don't like him. I love him. I saw Yuri Bashmet play The Viola in My Life with the San Francisco Symphony when I was in high school, and even at that early age, barely having heard of John Cage, I knew it to be beautiful music. When my professor--the estimable Alvin Lucier-- played us Two Pianos in the first music class I took in college, I was spellbound, and checked the score out of the library to ponder. As I have blogged before, I occasionally put on the epic Flux recording of String Quartet No. 2 for solace in times of blustery despair. Last summer I read his collected essays, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, and still quote its clever lines left and right. Like this one: "Impressionism isn't painting, it is an idea about painting." I just wrote that from memory. I consider Feldman to be the only true postmodernist of the New York School. 'Cause as Gayatri Spivak says--and here I also quote from memory, but probably in error--postmodernism is the result of living under postmodernity. I read that to say you can't adopt postmodernism, you've got to be born under it, and breath it out instinctively.

...I brought John a string quartet. He looked at it a long time and then said, "How did you make this?" I thought of my constant quarrels with Wolpe and also that, just a week before, after showing a composition of mine to Milton Babbitt and answering his questions as intelligently as I could, he said to me, "Morton, I don't understand a word you're saying." And so, in a very weak voice, I answered John, "I don't know how I made it." The response to this was startling. John jumped up and down and, with a kind of high monkey squeal, screeched, "Isn't that marvelous. Isn't that wonderful. It's so beautiful, and he doesn't know how he made it." Quite frankly, I sometimes wonder how my music would have turned out if John had not given me those early permissions to have confidence in my instincts.

I love John Cage the squealing monkey. But anyways, okay, so Morton Feldman is great. No question there. But if you believe in writing in specific and communicable detail about what makes a piece of music great, we obviously can't stop there. And I have no idea how to. How do you deal with his music with any specificity? There is not much in the way of good writing to turn to. Kyle Gann just did a post that is a great example of how to do it--he notices that Feldman tends to change his textures more or less page by page. Obviously the question is what next to do with that observation, but with Feldman's all-too-mystic music I think it is crucial to start with this sort of demystifying maneuver.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A New Year

I think I managed to survive New Year's Eve without embarrassing myself, for once. I hope this bodes well for an excellent 2007; I know I'm looking forward to it!


1. Do good things.
2. Don't do bad things.
3. Pay bills on time.