josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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5 Feb '03 10:47:47 AM

I know someone with very definitely mapped-out tastes. We often disagree about music. Tonight we sat around for a while playing records at each other ("at" is the appropriate word) and panning them. Or, to be more accurate, I heard his records and thought they sounded OK but wasn't that interested in them, and he heard my records and thought they were crap, for the most part. He played me a lot of things somewhere between post-rock (the U.S. version, the kind with lots of guitars, not marimbas or something) and post-hardcore. I played him: Ice Cube, Basement Jaxx, Herbert, the Avalanches, and Stevie Wonder. (He approved most of the Stevie, but still didn't like it that much.)

Now, what happened was more complex than I've described it above. I just wanted to put it down to motivate this question. At one point in my life (very recently), I would have liked his music more readily, but more importantly, I could have more easily picked a number of CDs of my own that we might have agreed upon. Although I was deliberately picking music with beats, this no longer seems to me to be something I might have to go out of my way to do, as it may have been at, say, the time that I liked music more like his. I was just picking records that I think are wonderful, good, awesome, spectacular, great, engaging, fascinating, essential, perfect, well, you know - I like them a lot. So what this led me to wonder is: if you've been reading this page for a long time, you may have noticed this shift. I have talked about it more than once, at any rate. But in the past year I haven't written so much about new things I like, or even new things I'm trying or listening to at all. Does this give you the impression that, when I talk about music now, I seem to have unexpectedly started talking only about music you don't like? Or of music that I never seemed to like before? Or anything else you can think of? I expect that anyone nominally aware enough to catch the persistent trend toward catholicism in my tastes will think little of any of this. But, I don't know; today I was struck by how far I seem to have traveled, since I am now apparently significantly alienated from someone whose tastes once might have coincided a fair amount with mine. Or, not by the distance, so much, but by how incommensurable things became (even "Superstition" got only grudging acceptance!).

If you have anything to say about this, you know what to do.

4 Feb '03 06:45:35 AM

My favorite song of 2002, No Doubt's "Underneath It All", failed a little test today, if failed is the right word. (I don't know that I really would have expected it to pass, if I had thought about it in advance, so a test doesn't really seem fair.) This afternoon I turned in an application for a fellowship at the very last minute, late even. I was not at all happy with my application, to put it mildly. I thought I might "freak out", to use the parlance of our times. On the way back across the bridge from the fellowship office I put on Rock Steady and listened some and tried not to fall down in the slush and ice, and skipped whatever it's called between "Hey Baby" and "Underneath It All". But "Undearneath It All" didn't really make me feel better, despite how wonderful it might make me feel in better circumstances. I suppose buoyant tranquility only goes so far.

It came on again over the house system in a restaurant I ate dinner at later on, and that did make me happy. But I mostly felt better by then anyway.

3 Feb '03 08:57:18 AM

At nighttime, at least. In the daytime I seem to be just fine.

As far as going to sleep goes, that is.

3 Feb '03 08:56:29 AM

This CD changer not working thing impairs my ability to go to sleep.

3 Feb '03 08:52:47 AM

Recently I have seen this page referred to as a "philosophy blog" and as a "poetics blog". I suppose this means I haven't been writing enough about music.

3 Feb '03 08:38:42 AM

'If almost every word of the first eight chapters of "the book of Doublends Jined" (two ends joined and Dublin's giant) carries three or four meanings, almost every word of this chapter carries "three score and ten toptypsical" meanings or more. "Than this," we say, scratching our heads, "nothing is denser."'

That's William Tindall writing in his Reader's Guide to Finnegans Wake (on p. 153). It reminded me of something else I had meant to say. It is not simply a matter of quantity (so that I am not by this comparing it to other pieces of music in particular), but Cage's "Roaratorio" is a dense piece of music. (I realize "music" may be a term in dispute here. My roommate's girlfriend referred to it as "eine kleine notmusic" last night. I also realize that he will tell her I said so and that she will send me mail to hassle me.) Despite this it doesn't feel to me to approach the density of a sufficiently dense book. And the Wake is far more than sufficient - I mean many less dense books. Anthony Cronin's biography, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, for instance, is straightforwardly written, even, but is big and thick with details and thus "dense" by my metric. Now, this might be a feeling I get just from reading long books, in which case something entirely different might be going on, but I feel as if I can get inside them, and thus that over time I can start to penetrate them, see into them, be surprised by small things that I discover, by progress that I make - I feel as if I am working. I do not feel this with the "Roaratorio", nor, really, with any piece of music. Even when I find music difficult to understand, it passes me by, and repetition and the happenstance discovery become my usual ways of coming to better understand it.

I might have put what I wrote below differently: my slight disappointment with the "Roaratorio" came from hearing it to be dense as a piece of music, but wanting it to be dense like a piece of writing, and thinking that the only way to achieve that was to actually include a piece of writing that would make it that dense.

3 Feb '03 08:21:39 AM

I also realize I said nothing about "traditional Irish music".

3 Feb '03 08:20:02 AM

I realize I said little there, but I enjoyed typing it out.

3 Feb '03 08:19:36 AM

John Cage's "Roaratorio" is made of three things: Cage, intoning parts from Finnegans Wake obtained through his "mesostic" technique; traditional Irish music; and field recordings made at locations mentioned in the Wake. The occurrence of the recordings is keyed to the line of the text (or closest one, I suppose) containing the part of the text being intoned, which provides some structure to the music. The mesostic technique also provides structure. As far as I'm able to see at the moment, neither of these provides especially audible structure, in the traditional sense. This is not a surprise to me. But I reckon that at the very least, Cage's generating rules acted indirectly to help give the work the particular kind of coherence it has (as opposed to some other kind of coherence): the pace of its drift, the density of sounds, and so forth. So in that respect it sounds a lot like I anticipated it would.

The only thing that's not the way I expected is the text of the Wake itself. (I may have read about "Roaratorio" somewhere before, but I didn't remember this detail.) Its fragmentation (due to the mesostic technique) I'm not so concerned about, though I am a bit. Longer lines would be nice. But Cage chose to sprechstimme his way through the text he generated. In the notes he suggests that this was in lieu of reading with an Irish accent, but elsewhere he points (indirectly) to other motivations for sprechstimme over a straight reading:

"Schöning John, perhaps you speak a little bit about the language in Finnegans Wake. Once you said -- and you quoted Thoreau --, that you would like to "demilitarize" the language, the syntax of the language.

Cage Thoreau said, that when he heard a sentence, he heard feet marching. And I think that sentences still clearly exist in Finnegans Wake. Whereas in ancient Chinese language the sentence -- as we know it -- doesn't to my mind exist, because you're uncertain in the ancient Japanese or Chinese language, classical language, you're uncertain of whether a noun is a noun, or whether it's a verb or whether it's an adjective. So that you don't know the relationship of the words. And a single poem can move as a single word in Joyce a single poem can move in many different directions to appeal to the understanding. It's possible for a group of Japanese individuals who love poetry to spend an entire evening with a single Haiku poem. Because they -- like Finnegans Wake -- they never come to the end of it. Even though it is very short with only 17 syllables.

Schöning And the idea of in "demilitarization" is in your Writing Through Finnegans Wake?

Cage It makes it less like sentences than it was originally."

At another place he says, "In a sense singing makes it more devoted to each letter and each syllable."

The sprechstimme takes the demilitarization one step further, and makes the text less like words than it was originally. The most straightforwardly read parts of it invite the kind of mental phrase completion and frustration (and sometimes felicitously unexpected satisfaction) that one might expect from the sentence-demilitarization. The closer to "singing" Cage gets, the more my experience of listening becomes one of trying to find sensible words at all. I can see the value in this, and it's appropriate enough for the musical setting, but I wonder if it would have been possible to get a similar effect by reading the text straight, even reading it unbroken, without selection via mesostic. If it's not uncommon for people to read a page of the Wake and feel they've understood little more than a sentence or two, then why can't an effect like the one Cage is interested in be gotten by just letting the words rush by? (I am prone to reading tumbles of words I am unable to understand each bit of in a pseudo-ecstatic-beat mode, faster than normal, short with the pauses. At least, aloud, I am.) The effect would not be the same -- it would seem denser, perhaps too "law and order" (a phrase Cage applies to sentences and in different form to scholarly and analytical understanding of the Wake, in contrast to "poetry and chaos") just because of that density (because of the greater degree to which it could compel a listener to attend to it, though if the Velvet Underground's story-songs are any indication, maybe the opposite effect would be obtained). But it could be similar enough.

I suppose I have brought to this a naively held idea that to really match the Wake, or (something) it, a new work has to contain it, at least in part. My idea of containment involves large contiguous sections. I'm inclined to agree with Cage that the "Roaratorio" gets some part of it right, but it leans too much on evocation compared to what I hoped.