Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tuesday Cat Blogging

My gosh! I forgot a very important anniversary this week!

Exactly one year ago, Violet Vixen and I took home Pablo and Carlos, two sweet little kitties. Well, one sweet little kittie (Pablo) and one rambunctious-but-cute monster (Carlos). At one point this blog threatened to degenerate into the worst stereotype of self-indulgent cat blogging, and therefore I tried to restrain my impulse to post daily pictures, but I think on the anniversary of their homecoming we can visit them again.

Pablo, as you can see, has turned into a very wise old man.

Carlos, well...not so wise, although that is a very smart book he is resting his empty little head on.

These pictures are courtesy of my cell phone, so they are not the greatest. But I think they do a good job of cheering up a dull Tuesday. All of the academic bloggers I read have turned in their grades and are off gallivanting on summer vacations. We here on the quarter system still have a month to go.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Terrible Life Choice?

Starting in 1919 with True Stories, there has been a small but popular genre of what are called "confession" magazines. Aimed largely at working class white women, they were centered around short stories designed to show you how far people could fall. Lots of stories about infidelity, abortion, incest, drug use, and a surprisingly large number of babies dying in horrific fashion. There would also be articles about fashion, makeup tips, the odd celebrity profile, that sort of thing.

Well in 1950, the publisher of Ebony thought that there might be a market for a confession magazine aimed at African Americans. So for a short-lived period in the early fifties, we have an amazing historical document called Tan Confessions. I came across a reference to it somewhere, and since it is in my period, and I'm currently writing about the so-called "black bourgeoise," I got a microfilm copy via ILL.

Well let me tell you, gold mine! Anybody who is working on music in the fifties has got to check it out. Nearly every issue is divided between these horrific confession stories and interviews with famous black musicians aimed at women. A regular feature is "How I Proposed," with the wives of famous musicians telling the stories of their engagements. Then there are occasional articles written by musicians themselves. There is a hilarious one by Louis Jordan called "What's Wrong With Women?" and another one by Dizzy Gillespie talking about how he doesn't do anything without talking to his wife first. And best of all, for my purposes, there is a lengthy piece penned by none other than Sonny Til, analyzing, in very intelligent and observant ways, why exactly women go crazy over him.


In other news, while taking a break from the microfilm I accidentally walked in on two people having sex in a bathroom in the library. I feel bad for having disturbed them, but they rushed out before I could apologize. Hey, it was a Sunday, nobody was in the library, and it was a very obscure bathroom buried away in the stacks. Go ahead and have anonymous sex with strangers, more power to you.

This is what I was thinking, but then I realized that the only people having a good time in the depths of the library on a beautiful Sunday afternoon were these two gentlemen and myself. What life have I signed up for?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Researching American Music

Over at Dial M for Musicology, the ever-thoughtful Phil Ford has a post that really threw me for a loop. There's a lot to engage with there; I admit that my immediate reaction was a little defensive, as in some ways he totally has my number. One of the fundamental approaches of my dissertation is looking at a lot of different sites of cultural production in one historical period, and drawing as many parallels as possible. I have some quibbles with his critique of that approach--I don't think there is something inherently wrong with a speculative approach to history, as sticking to just bare bones facts is exactly how certain historical narratives get reified. It's that old archive/repertoire distinction in performance studies: if you just stick to the written record, you're going to miss out on layer after layer of historical knowledge that is often dissenting from and resistant to normative historical narratives. Looking for connections between disparate events is one possible way to attack history from a different angle.

But overall, I definitely share his concern, and one of the main points of my own project is problematizing that annoying Ozzie and Harriet mythology of the fifties. Reflecting further, I think (hope!) what saves my own work from that trap is that I spend an almost excessive amount of time historicizing. I try to do my homework, in other words, and not just make lazy parallelisms. I spend time getting to know my historical subjects, in primary and archival sources. I try to let the music tell me what's going on, rather than assuming my 2007 self knows.

However, there is a structural problem in musicology that stands in the way of doing the kind of work I want to do. This leads me to the real substance of this post, which I'm afraid is going to be somewhat whiny, and most definitely connected to, shall we say, certain material realities of my own life as I await word on funding for next year!

What is with the lack of funding for research in American music? I know of only one source of funding that specifically targets American music, an award given by the Music Library Association. It's all of $2100, which of course would be an honor and a privilege to receive, but only goes so far. And is limited to one or two graduate students a year. And as far as I know, that's it.

So that's the problem: there is precious little money out there to encourage archival work in American music. If you are doing European music, well, sometimes it seems like people are tripping over themselves to give you money. The AMS has no less than three travel grants for research outside of the United States, the Bartlet, the Wolf, and the Powers grants. At my own University, there is a travel grant for research in Europe that my colleagues regularly get, plus a grant within my department for travel which is limited to music before 1950. Plus, there are a number of interdisciplinary centers at my school which give quite a bit a support to musicologists, but are limited in spirit if not name to non-American research: centers for medieval and renaissance studies, for 17th- and 18th-century studies, and so on. And then of course there are the various federal programs like the Fulbright, Fulbright-Hays, the FLAS, and so on. There are no equivalents for these Eurocentric programs, in the AMS, at my university, or in my department.

Travel outside of the United States is more of expensive of course. It is easier for me to self-fund my research, as I did this last fall when I put a trip to Chicago on my credit card. I had been desperately needing to visit the John Cage papers at Northwestern for years, had never been able to get any funding to do so, and finally just had to suck it up so that I could get my chapter written. But you know, it's not actually that much cheaper. The expense of spending a month looking at archives in, say, New York City is not that different than the expense of a month in Paris. In addition, fellowships are not just about funding; as my friend Sushi PJs pointed out, they also lend your project crucial legitimation.

But most importantly, what kind of message does this send about doing work on American music? It is a loud and clear message from the world of musicology that archival work on American music, and I would argue by extension historical work, is not important or necessary.

And that, my friends, sucks.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It's Too Soon to Know

Write write write. That's what it is all about right now. If I'm going to stick to my (mostly) self-imposed writing schedule, I should have a solid draft of my doo-wop chapter done by the end of this quarter. It is now Week 7, of our ten week quarter, so this would be crunch time. Of course, that is not the only thing I have to write: I'm writing two entries for an encyclopedia that are due in two weeks, plus the introduction to a special section of our graduate student journal. Phew. Luckily, the encyclopedia entries are both topics that are part of my chapter, so there is a certain synergy.

But, anyways, here is some information:

Have you ever wondered where in Baltimore the amazing HBO show The Wire is filmed? There is a great article from the Baltimore City Paper that gives a little tour of some of the locations. Ironically, most of the locations are on the East Side. On the show, most of the focus is on West Baltimore, the black neighborhood traditionally demarcated by Fremont Avenue. But apparently there are less trees on the East Side, which makes season continuity much easier. But you get the idea what it is like in these neighborhoods. The location scout had no problem finding block after block of burnt out row houses, completely empty and desolate.

One of the ongoing themes of The Wire is that we are watching the final chapter of a black community in long decline. But also that before desegregation, urban renewal, and the crack epidemic, these neighborhoods were home to a community that was definitely poor, but had a vibrant life.

In fact, West Baltimore is a crucial location for my dissertation chapter, which is looking at R&B vocal groups of the late forties and early fifties. West Baltimore was home to the greatest of these groups, the Orioles. Would you like to see the street corner upon which the Orioles, still in high school and calling themselves the Vibranaires, used to meet to sing? Show us, Google Maps!

I don't know the city of Baltimore very well, and I can't tell you what this corner looks like from the ground. (Hopefully I will be able to visit this fall!) But one suspects that it is probably not very pleasant right now. Do you remember that scene from Season 3 of The Wire, when the special unit is trying to follow the drug kingpin Avon Barksdale in his car? Remember all those street names the police were radioing to each other in an attempt to find him? That's all right around this spot. In fact, here is another map, courtesy of the Baltimore PD.

This shows crimes within a half mile radius of the street corner. Blue squares are burglaries, red circles are stolen cars, red stars are larceny from a vehicles, green triangles are aggravated assault, and black dots are robberies. Oh, and red crosses are murders. And, you should know that this map is just showing crimes from a two-week period, from April 21 to May 5 of this year.

Does she love me? It's too soon to know.
Can I believe her, when she tells me so?
Is she fooling? Is it all a game?
Am I the fire or just another flame?
A one-sided love would break my heart.
She may be just acting and playing a part.

-The Orioles, "It's Too Soon to Know" (1948)

The image of the golden age of West Baltimore that The Wire and doo-wop fans valorize is probably mostly mythology. It was always a poor neighborhood, and the relative prosperity after World War II was just an illusory moment driven by a temporary rise in manufacturing. I'm sure music is being made here, though, and it is probably good music. But you can start understand the nostalgia. It is hard to imagine the Orioles coming out of today's West Baltimore.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Deep Thought for the Day

Many questions were troubling the explorer, but at the sight of the prisoner he asked only: "Does he know his sentence?" "No," said the officer, eager to go on with his exposition, but the explorer interrupted him: "He doesn't know the sentence that has been passed on him?" "No," said the officer again, pausing a moment as if to let the explorer elaborate his question, and then said: "There would be no point in telling him. He'll learn it on his body."
          -Franz Kafka, The Penal Colony

Speaking of things that are a pain in the neck (ha...) why does NBC insist on showing The Office at 8:40, thereby making me choose between it and Grey's Anatomy at 9:00?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I Fell Into a Burning...

High of 92 today, for the second day in a row. Driving home from school, I noticed a giant plume of grey smoke coming from the hills, behind the observatory. Grey smoke is good, it means that it is just a brush fire. When the smoke from a forest fire turns black, you know that homes are starting to burn. I remember seeing that happen, during the Oakland fire of 1991. That Sunday morning, when I was eleven, the smoke coming from the north was grey, but by mid-afternoon it had turned a thick, oily black, as asphalt, shingles, and gasoline went up in flames.

It reminds me of my first fall in Los Angeles, three and a half years ago. I had purposefully found an apartment on the #2 MTA bus line, which went straight to the music building at school. By October, I had grown accustomed to the bus, even my morning waits for a late bus in the brutal sunshine. But one day, the buses suddenly stopped coming. The mechanics had gone on strike, and the drivers struck in sympathy. I luckily heard the night before, but the next day there were crowds of people at the stops, waiting futilely for their buses. Even today, I still breath a small sigh of relief when I see a bus go by, even if it is in the wrong direction. At least the buses are running.

Then, at about the same time, the workers at most of the area grocery stores also went on strike. Ralphs and Vons stayed open with scabs, but as a loyal member of UAW Local 2865, I wasn't about to cross a picket line. But I was, meanwhile, out of both a means of transportation and food. Then, at the end of a long dry summer, the city slowly started to catch on fire. There was a fire in Pasadena, a fire in Malibu, a fire in the valley, another one to the south. We joked that soon we wouldn't be able to leave the city except by plane or boat. Over Thanksgiving, I did just that, flying off to London to visit Mary. As the plane took off from LAX, I could see the smoke rising from all directions. Los Angeles was hemmed in by a literal ring of fire.

It gets so hot in this city. My apartment is on the top floor of my building, with large view-less windows and nonexistent insulation. We have an ancient air-conditioner cut into one wall. If you turn it on full blast, you get a little puddle of cool air that lets you watch TV in some temporary comfort, but doesn't even get close to the bedrooms. My friends and I invest in fans, swamp coolers, and library expeditions, but there really isn't anything you can do about it. Last summer, when it was sweltering, Pablo would see me panting unhappily on the couch and would come over and drape his warm fuzzy belly on my neck. I considered drowning him in the pool, but I also understood his furry little desire: when it gets that hot, sometimes all you want to do is get hotter, and hope that your ability to feel heat will just burn out.

Every city has its own heat metaphors. For New York, summer heat brings up violence, the Bronx in 1978 1977. In Washington, it's that city's former status as a swamp, and the intimation that the slimy politicos that dwell within enjoy such habitats. In the South, you hear endless clich├ęs about laidback attitudes moving slowly in the heat. In Texas, you have George Bush subjecting visitors to the furnace of his ranch, as if that kind of heat will separate the man from the boys.

In Los Angeles, the heat is like our tar pits. It sucks you in, swirls you about, and spits you out a few thousand years later as a fossil. Everyone desperately wants to escape Los Angeles in the heat, but unlike New York or DC, there's nowhere really to go. San Diego? Palm Springs? Las Vegas? Each worse than the last. Your best bet is to drive north, but you have to go a long ways to escape this heat. Instead, those of us trapped in this urban ooze do our best to keep afloat.

But it doesn't look good.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Much Better

Political crankiness over, and I feel happy and fulfilled:

1. Pleasant social-ness to celebrate friend finishing scary qualifying exams. Expensive tequila consumed, gossip circulated.

2. Productive grading at the local coffeeshop, where the good barista made my cappuccino just the way I like it, and charged me a dollar under the price because she likes me.

3. Lovely conversational stroll through a park in the Hollywood hills with friend. Followed by an excellent triple-chocolate milkshake at Milk.

4. Gig lined up. Going to be doing our 15 minute transgender Elvis whizbang at the LA Pride festival.

5. Self-congratulation for amazing avoidance of active verbs in this list.

Friday, May 04, 2007

This Country, I Tell You What

Sorry, no poetry this Friday. I'm too cranky.

This past Tuesday there was a big march in Los Angeles to push for immigration reform, one of a number of marches around the country. The day was entirely peaceful and positive, as all of these immigration marches have been. And then, at the end of the day, there was an altercation between some cops and protesters at MacArthur Park. Supposedly, a rock or two might have been thrown, although possibly it was just some plastic water bottles. The police responded by charging the crowd, firing rubber bullets indiscriminately at a mass of people that included families, ice cream vendors, and the usual homeless people that live in the park. Parents dived on top of their toddlers to keep them from being killed by the rubber bullets.

Now, you might not know this, but this stuff happens all the time at protests. And it is usually pretty well-documented. I wasn't at this particular protest, but a bunch of friends of mine were at one of the big anti-IMF protests in Washington, DC back in 2000. The Wesleyan contingent was part of a larger group that was blocking traffic at an intersection, with their arms chained to each other. The student newspaper I worked on, Hermes, published the accounts of these protesters, and here is the story of one friend of mine:
The police bus pulled up around noon. We'd scarcely seen a squad car all morning, and we were off our guard. Everyone in the lockdown circle stood up to see what was going on, which was the worst thing we possibly could have done. The police came off the bus running, and formed a riot line a few feet from our circle. None of them were wearing badges. They didn't even order us to clear the area--one shouted "Let's do this," and they charged us, nightsticks first. In the training sessions, they told us that you're supposed to sit down when the police charge you--that way they can't push people around, knock them over, and start a stampede. Our lock-circle was standing, staring stupidly at the riot visors and shouting for support when they hit us. People's arms started twisting inside the lock-boxes, and they started screaming. A couple unhooked. A soft line formed around us and starting shouting for us to sit down. I sat. The riot officer in front of me looked over at someone who'd just pulled out of his lockbox, looked at me, and drove his nightstick into my face.

I don't know quite what happened next. I was bleeding, screaming, trying to get my arms out of the boxes and figure out where my glasses had landed. There were so many cameras snapping it sounded like machine-gun rounds. When I unhooked my right hand, I saw Sasha, reeling and bleeding, pulling her hand out from the other side. The police backed off--I don't know why--and a second later I was behind the lines, two medics were taking care of me, and a legal observer was interrogating me in the most apologetic tone imaginable.

In the emergency room, they put seven stitches in my face and told me my nose was broken. Sasha had a broken nose and was missing a third of one of her front teeth. And in the hospital waiting room, we watched the network news shows laud the DC police for their restraint.

This stuff really does happen all the time. As Tuesday's march showed, it is rarely related to actual threats from protesters; the LA Times is estimating that there probably about a dozen anarchist-types in MacArthur Park, out of the hundreds of protesters. In the DC case quoted above, the protestors were literally chained to the ground, and were in no position to be a threat to anyone!

Luckily here in LA, MacArthur Park was also home to an area where the press was stationed, underneath a clearly-marked tent and next to their news vans. We're not talking a couple of hippies with video cameras, we're talking the normal national and local news. The police nevertheless pushed through the press, at once point kicking an NBC cameraman while he was on the ground. The national news anchor for Telemundo was roughed up. A woman producer was punched. And so, for once, there is actually some awareness of what happens. Here's a YouTube clip of Brian Williams telling the story:

Know what bothers me? This stuff always goes on at marches, and the media knows it. It's only when their own people get beat up that they get outraged. Know what also bothers me? The so-called progressives in the blogosphere have largely ignored the story--both the marches, and the police violence. Am I missing something or was there not a single post on DailyKos about this? They are so busy worrying about electing Democrats, they could care less that the down are literally being trod upon.

And in other news, today, the president of the American Musicological Society--probably one of the most apolitical, if not downright conservative, scholarly groups out there--emailed all the members to give us an update on Nalini Ghuman. Ghuman is an assistant professor of music at Mills College. (For my non-academic readers, that means she is a full-time faculty member on the tenure track.) She is a British citizen, with degrees from Oxford (BA, MA) Kings College (MA), and UC Berkeley (PhD). Having a job in this country, she has a work visa good through 2008. She went to England this summer for a month to do some research. When she flew back home, to begin her fourth year of teaching, she was detained for eight hours at SFO. Her visa was then revoked, and she was sent back to England.

No explanation.

Eight months later, the government still won't let her come back into the country, as the INS has not yet granted her a security clearance. Again, no explanation. She has apparently heard a rumor that it is a case of mistaken identity, but no official word. While stories like this are sadly a dime a dozen, this really hits home. I don't know Prof. Ghuman, but I do know how difficult it is to be a student in a foreign country, and also how hard it is to get a tenure track job. And to think that it could all be taken away from her because her name is probably similar to the name of someone who once visited the Middle East or something.

Outrageous, and depressing.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Some Debts You'll Never Pay

As we speak, Patti Smith is playing a show at the Roxy, promoting the new album and kicking off the tour. The Roxy, mind you, is a small club, holding maybe 200 people? And it is walking distance from my apartment. Where am I? At home, because I couldn't get tickets to see one of my favorite performers playing an intimate show at a club in my neighborhood singing new music that would probably rock my world.

To console myself, I bought Arcade Fire's new album, Neon Bible. It is beautiful. I don't care if they went to Exeter. (We're an Andover family, 'round these WASP-y parts.) I'm listening to "Intervention," and it is bringing a lump to my throat. There is a pipe organ (a real one, the organ at St. Jean Baptiste in Montreal), a snare drum lifted from 80's arena rock, a xylophone, strings, who knows what else. There is a simple strophic melody over a repeating vi-IV-I, lots of natural reverb. There are goddamn trumpet fanfares that make you want to pump your fist.

The singer sounds like Bruce Springsteen crossed with Billy Graham. You can't quite make out every word of the lyrics, but you can just tell they are deliciously depressing.
Working for the church
While your life falls apart.
Singing halleluiah with the fear in your heart.
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home.
Hear the solider groan, "We'll go at it alone"
Hear the solider groan, "We'll go at it alone"
But because you can only make out the occasional word, that shouted "We'll got at it alone" starts to feel triumphant, and the music keeps crescendoing, and, and, you're torn between abjection and uplift, Good stuff. Ineffable, even.

Oops, I almost forgot. Most pop music has a limited emotional range. Nevermind.