Monday, April 30, 2007

Haunts of Men

Speaking of Thoreau...
In warm evenings I frequently sat in the boat playing the flute, and saw the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom, which was strewed with the wrecks of the forest. Formerly I had come to this pond adventurously, from time to time, in dark summer nights, with a companion, and, making a fire close to the water's edge, which we thought attracted the fishes, we caught pouts with a bunch of worms strung on a thread, and when we had done, far in the night, threw the burning brands high into the air like skyrockets, which, coming down into the pond, were quenched with a loud hissing, and we were suddenly groping in total darkness. Through this, whistling a tune, we took our way to the haunts of men again.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or, Life in the Woods

Friday, April 27, 2007

Poetry Friday: Cage's Mesostics

I'm taking a brief respite from the world of doo-wop today, for a quick plunge back in the world of John Cage. Our department has a competition--with a fairly substantial cash prize--for best dissertation chapter, so I'm doing a little editing and cleaning of my Cage chapter. Part of the editing resulted from finally reading Carolyn Brown's memoirs. Brown was an early member of the Cunningham troupe, and also the first wife of Earle Brown. She spent her whole life hanging around with Cage, and was present at the premiere of 4'33", which is of course the subject of my chapter. I was hoping there would be some juicy detail, but unfortunately the book is very thin on these early years. With a few exceptions, I suspect that she refreshed her memory by looking at the same old secondary sources all of us know. Oh well! I imagine, though, that the book would be extraordinarily useful for those looking at later Cage and Cunningham stuff.

Anyways, it's Poetry Friday, and I realized I've never posted anything by Cage. From the seventies on, Cage almost exclusively wrote in a poetic form he invented called "mesostics." Basically, you take a word, and arrange it vertically. Then you find other words to go across each letter, the main rule being that you can't repeat the vertical letters. So if you chose the word "vertigo" because of the "t", you can't have another "t" until after the next vertical letter.

Cage did these mesostics in many different ways. Sometimes he chose letters and phonemes at random, and then also used chance procedures to randomly change the size and typeface of the letters, as in 62 Mesostics Re: Merce Cunningham. (See an example here. I have a different one of these mesostics tattooed on my back, largely to intimidate other Cage scholars at conferences.) Other times, he more or less wrote in readable prose, but still arranged in the mesostic system.

Why did he do this? In Empty Words, Cage writes that he was inspired by a remark of Norman O. Brown, who pointed out that the word "syntax" is military in origin. And also by a comment of Thoreau, who once wrote that when he heard a sentence, he heard the marching of feet. It was also in this period that Cage did some of his most overtly political music. Cage's politics were always a bit fuzzy, and often annoying, but some of the work of this period is remarkably effective. In the Lecture on the Weather, for instance, is a piece for twelve men, ideally twelve Americans who became Canadian citizens to escape the draft. The men read aloud selections of writings by Thoreau, while recordings (by Maryanne Amacher) of weather sounds blast in the background, and a film (by Luis Frangella) projects photographs of Thoreau's handwriting in negative so that it appears like flashes of lightening. It is a grim, and aggressive, work. It's a little later than Crumb's Black Angels, or middle-period Curtis Mayfield ("(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go"), but shares obvious sympathies. Grim times.

At any rate, here's a slightly more cheerful piece, the beginning of "Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegan's Wake. Cage loved Joyce, and decided to improve upon Finnegan's Wake by destroying its syntax even more. The words are chosen from the book, with an emphasis on Joyce's made-up words, and the vertical spine is simply "James Joyce." If you read it aloud, it's quite lovely in its own way.

wroth with twone nathandJoe

sOlid man
that the humptYhillhead of humself
is at the knoCk out
in thE park

A bunch of my friends are taking or about to take their qualifying exams. Good luck out there! Illegitimi non carborundum.

Monday, April 23, 2007


For a brief, shining, happy, tiny little moment tonight, I had a moment of clarity where I could remember the names, origins, and stylistic distinctions of all the groups in my doo-wop chapter. It lasted about five minutes, but it was wonderful.

I swear, I should make some flash cards or something.

(The Mills Brothers)
(The Inks Spots)
The Ravens (Baltimore)
The Orioles (Baltimore)
The Clovers (Baltimore)
The Dominoes (NYC)
The Cadillacs (NYC)
The Five Keys (NYC)
The Four Fellows (NYC)
The Moonglows (Kentucky-Cleveland)

Argh! My brain just exploded.
  • Incidentally, Gayle Wald's new biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe is really great. Go buy it.
  • The Wikipedia entry on Sonny Til is really pathetic, but I don't have the energy to write a decent one.
  • You know what's a really weird song? The Orioles "Deacon Jones."
  • Despite a really bad talk I once saw on it, I can listen to the Drifters sing "This Magic Moment" over and over again.
  • I wonder if my committee would let me write my dissertation in bullet points.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Media I Shall Consume

1. The new Björk album, Volta. I've been greatly enjoying the first single, "Earth Intruders." Although I liked Medulla and Vespertine, as well as the stuff she did for Drawing Restraint 9, I've been getting a little tired of this introspective phase of her career. My favorite album remains Post, which had a very vibrant, communal spirit to it--mostly, I imagine, because she brought in a wide range of different producers, rather than using just one (Debut) or doing it all herself (most of her stuff since.) Volta apparently has a bunch of different collaborators, including Timbaland. I think that is fabulous, and I'm really excited to hear it. You know, right, that Björk is my favorite music of all time? She's the only popular musician whose albums I buy as soon as they come out, whose shows I go to see whenever I can, and whose career I follow with a fine-tooth comb. Being a musicologist, it is just too exhausting to keep up with contemporary music to the extent that I did at age 15; Björk is the only artist for whom I allow myself complete fandom.

2. Hot Fuzz. Okay, I have already consumed this media. Mary and I saw it in England a few weeks ago. But now that it is out in the US, I want to consume it again, and I want to drag my friends with me. Picture Bad Boys or Die Hard, except set in a picturesque rural English village. (Somerset County, to be exact, so kind of near the Cotswolds.) It is created by the same team that brought you Shaun of the Dead, and although less formally coherent than that masterpiece, it is nevertheless hilarious and pitch-perfect in its analysis of middlebrow English culture. Brilliant. Brilliant!

3. The Sopranos. Well, I am slightly ambivalent about this. I love the show, of course. But for the past two weeks, I have been catching up on the first two seasons of The Wire, another great show. And although The Wire can be rather didactic at times, I love its precise and clean directing, the elegance of its writing, the overall tightness of the production. Going from that world to the world of The Sopranos, well...these new episodes are so weighty, you know? The heavy portent David Chase puts into every single element of The Sopranos is beginning to grate on me a little bit. Obviously, I am going to keep watching, and I still think the show is probably the greatest every produced on American television, but one more good season of The Wire and that might not be so true anymore.

Oh, and I need desperately to get a haircut. I think I need to go a little shorter, to keep pace with my receding hairline. But that's neither here nor there.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ode to a Fountain

How I know I am a red-blooded American:

Nothing makes me happier than the fountain shows at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Nothing. Is that so wrong? I mean, honest, they practically bring a tear to my eye. I watched three separate performances this weekend, just couldn't get enough. The first was in the afternoon, some Sinatra tune I didn't recognize. Then, after dinner, Mary and I each bought a 60-ounce strawberry frozen margarita in a souvenir plastic Eiffel Tower container from the stand in front of Paris, and watched over to catch a fountain show done to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." Good enough, but luckily, we waited another 15 minutes for the next show. Wait for it...

"Time to Say Goodbye" by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli.

I swear to god, there is nothing better than strawberry margarita, dancing fountains, and Italy's blindest best. If late capitalism can bring us the Bellagio fountains, then sign me up for late capitalism.

And I am not alone. My friend Kelsey pointed me towards this amazing article in the Guardian on the guilty pleasures of famous academics. Homi Bhaba loves Project Runway. Anthony Giddens loves pro wrestling. Stanley Fish loves country music. Slavoj Zizek likes violent computer games. And although I won't name names, I have had conversations about the Bellagio fountains with many other academics. And many of these other academics admit to secretly loving the fountains, even to being quite moved by them.

I wonder why. A lot of pleasure comes from the simple conjunction of music with moving image. "Mickey mousing," as film music types call it, especially in a live situation, is always a good time. It's similar to a fireworks show, with escalating climaxes in music and image.

Also, there is the medium. How often do you get to see water dancing around? And man, those jets shoot high up into the air! But more than that, I think one of the greatest thrills is the resemblence of water to human bodies. It's most evident when the center circle of fountains does this move that looks like dancers leaning backwards. (This picture kind of shows it.) And obviously the choreography of the fountains is based largely on basic ballet choreography, with lots of synchronization. Like ballet, the synchronization is both mechanical and imperfect; the coordination is impressive, but the use of water means that it is not entirely controlled. Drops and mist fly around in the wind, and the changing light plays off the lake differently every time. It's not like watching a screensaver. At the same time, the fountains obviously are more than human. They are mechanical, and they exceed human limits. One of the common fountain moves is for the fountains to jet off in a line across the thousand foot installation, culminating in an explosion of the tall center jets. You see that kind of move in human dancing all the time--think the Rockettes kicking their legs--but it's something else to see it happen on such a gigantic scale.

You can see some videos here.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ramblin' On My Mind

Richard Lacayo proposes that now that Sol LeWitt has passed away, his large-scale drawings--usually created in galleries by assistants following his written instructions--should be treated like musical scores, which is to say available for "performances" and new interpretations by anyone who wishes to give it a go, rather than highly controlled by the estate. (Via M.A.N). Interesting! What do you think, learned reader?

In other news, we are off to Vegas tomorrow, just for one night, to celebrate yesterday's board exams. I love Las Vegas, I really do. My high school orchestra went there twice, and when I was moving out to LA four years ago, we won $150 at the slots.

We are also celebrating the fact that it is my 27th birthday tomorrow.

Famous musicians who died when they were 27?

Kurt Cobain
Jimi Hendrix
Jim Morrison
Brian Jones
Janis Joplin
Robert Johnson

Maybe I didn't pick the best year of my life to attempt to move across the country, get married, and go on the job market. These activities already have a fairly high mortality rate as it is.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Poetry Friday: Yeats

It has been a long week, but a good one. Today Mary took her American board exams. They went well enough, but she won't know if she passed for another month or so. For those of you keeping track, these are the same exams all veterinarians must take to practice in the United States. Some individual states also have addition boards, but not Pennsylvania, where we hope to move this fall. If she was going to an American veterinary school, the boards would count as her final exam, and she would basically be done now. However, she still has to go back to the UK next week and finish up her courses there, and then sit through more exams to receive her degree. That's the downside, but the upside is that when she finishes all this, she will have both a "DVM" and a "MCRVS" (Master of the College of Royal Veterinary Surgeons") after her name, which is pretty cool.

The other good thing about this week is of a subject I shan't blog about. But suffice it to say, I'm in a good mood. So with that, I leave you with the poem of the week! A little Yeats for April, by special request.

William Butler Yeats, "Cloths of Heaven" (1899)

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Say Goodbye to the Library

This last Friday was closing day for libraries in Jackson Country, Oregon. I've blogged about this before; basically, the economic and political situation in Oregon, especially southern Oregon, is so dire that when Federal timber subsidies ended, there was no money for such luxuries.

My mother volunteers at the the Ashland Public Library, and was working there on the last day. There were a lot of tears, and patrons brought in flowers for the staff. Most amazing, however, was a group of kids who organized a peaceful sit-in. The local paper filmed the proceedings, which features Sgt. Williams, the most amazing police officer you will ever meet. The whole thing is heart-rending.

Ashland is a wealthy town, by Oregon standards, and is populated largely by refugees from San Francisco, like my parents, who would cheerfully tax themselves for such things. I'm sure the town will be able to work something out, possibly turn the library into a municipal function, albeit one without the larger support crucial for libraries. But the real tragedy is all of the other libraries in Jackson Country, many of which are scattered across extremely rural and impoverished areas. Those libraries are not going to be able to re-open any time soon, and southern Oregon will lose just a bit more of itself.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Nothing Metonymic About This One

I just had my very first fellowship anxiety dream. In my dream, I got rejected from a certain fancy national fellowship from which in real life I have yet to hear. But it wasn't just an email rejection, in my dream. Rather, I received an automated phone call. And rather than simply informing me I didn't receive the fellowship, the pre-recorded voice broke the fellowship down into all the little expenses for which it would have paid, and rejected me one by one. Like, "Here are the results of your application for the X Fellowship: You did not receive $500 for travel to archives in New York. You did not receive $5000 towards tuition. You did not receive $12000 to pay your rent." And so on.

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


This is so awesome.

Also, I'd like to point out that I just tried to schedule an eye exam to renew my contact lens prescription, and the first available appointment was May 21st at 7:45 am. That's 47 days away. I suspect that a student health center with 35,000 students might want to have more than one optometrist.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Beer on the Last Day

Last day in Barnet. Borrowing a friend's little car (a tiny little automatic Geo Metro complete with a choke) Mary, Molly and I drove around Hertfordshire doing a little pub hopping. We vaguely knew of a country pub we wanted to try, but not knowing where it was we just pointed the car North and resolved to see what we could find.

First stop was the Candlestick, which we ran into by accident outside of Essendon. It was a nice little building, but mostly empty, and the barman looked like he'd had a rough Saturday night. We were able to take our drinks--I had a pint of McMullen's AK Bitter--out into a garden where we could enjoy the rare sunshine.

From there, we noticed a sign pointing the way towards Wildhill, where the phantom pub was supposedly located. Sure enough, we ran straight into the Woodman. Unfortunately, it was closed during the afternoon, so we had to forge on ahead to the Five Horseshoes. I started out here with a Courage Directors Bitter. Growing hungry, we sat down and all three of us had beef and ale pies, washed down for me with Old Speckled Hen. The beer was good, but the pie was literally the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. But then Mary had to go and order a Corona, which completely destroyed the ambience of the photo above.

Tomorrow, Los Angeles bound!

Ain't That the Truth

Reuters: Frequent Long-Haul Flights Hard on the Body
Airplane crew and passengers who frequently fly between several time zones face a number of health problems including disruptions in a woman's menstrual cycle and even short-term psychiatric disturbances, researchers from the UK warn in a report published Thursday in The Lancet.