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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24 Mar '02 07:58:05 AM

I listened to Mozart's String Quartet in C major, K. 465, "Dissonance", tonight. It's been quite a while. I got out of the habit of listening to it during college, helped partly by one of my roommates inadvertently moving away with the CD; but in high school it was probably the piece of classical music I listened to the most, so it still sounds very familiar when I play it.

Up to a point, that is. The quartet is the second of three on the disc, and I have never, ever made a point of paying attention to the movement breaks and most importantly the ending of the quartet. So I regularly get confused about whether or not I've started listening to the next quartet on the disc, Haydn's op. 76. I err in both directions, which means that sometimes during the Mozart I become convinced that I've started the Haydn.

I've noticed that sometimes my conviction is driven by my belief (which is true) that Haydn is boring, based on an oh so careful listen to one of his symphonies somewhere this one time. That is, when I get to a spot in the Mozart that I think is boring, it's easy for me to think that I've started listening to Haydn because of course if it is boring it must be Haydn.

I feel vindicated that the liner notes claim the finale to the quartet "returns to Haydnesque gestures." For now I will take their word for it, in lieu of actually listening to Haydn.

Apparently part of my insouciance at openly not having listened 'properly' to all four movements and come to understand their unified nature stems from my overwhelming interest in the first movement, the Adagio-Allegro. Note parallel to my love for the "Thanksgiving Hymn" movement in Beethoven's op. 132.

24 Mar '02 07:40:08 AM

Mark wrote to suggest that the thing I was talking about the other day, about the maelstrom-like effect in a Shostakovich string quartet, might be due to the decreased decay time of the sounds produced by the string quartet allowing for closer bar synchronization, which creates some kind of microsyncopation. That sounds helpful to me, but only as a way of intensifying what I'm thinking of. I've had similar experiences listening to symphonies, where the larger orchestra would have a harder time staying synchronized (though maybe the failure to synchronize can have its own similar microsyncopation effects!). What makes the two similar is that the buffeting seems to me to come from the quick succession of phrases. Close synchronization makes the succession as seamless as possible, but I think the brunt of the effect is due to the larger-scale stuff.

(Still awaiting email from Mark, explaining to me why I am wrong.)

22 Mar '02 06:05:23 PM

I think this is going to make me cry. I am not kidding.

22 Mar '02 08:05:37 AM

Maybe there's something about the nature of the string quartet, its arrangement as a group and the ranges and timbres of the four instruments, that draws composers to a certain kind of fast passage. I'm constantly made to think of maelstroms when hearing, for example, the allegro to Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 9 in E-Flat Major Op. 117. This isn't, I think, because of some feeble reliance on my part on extra-musical imagery in order to make the music intelligible. 'Maelstrom' is appropriate only because it captures the character of the music, the way that it seems to pass phrases back and forth between the violins, viola, and cello. It's not always immediately higher-to-lower or vice versa, but the effect of this passing phrases around creates an impression of motion; the transitions seem faster maybe not just because of the tempo and the short notes but the larger steps between each instrument's parts. But the faster tempo is important, too; I don't get this sense of a maelstrom in the slow movements, ever. ("Buffeted" is also a helpful word.)

I mostly think about this in relation to some twentieth century music I've heard (I'm thinking in particular of Bartok alongside Shostakovich). I wonder about the nineteenth century. (Recalling Beethoven's string quartets that I've heard, I think not, but I have a poor memory.)

22 Mar '02 06:56:37 AM

OK, two people have asked me to explain what I had in mind when talking about the reviews of the new N.E.R.D. album, In Search Of... I was looking at the reviews at metacritic. I'm afraid I don't have anything very surprising to say - it's the usual stuff. Mainly critics taking stabs at hip-hop or commercial music, for various reasons, in ways that cause me to lose interest in whatever they have to say about the album. From the CDNow critic we hear that "The group studiously avoids the hackneyed synth-slabs that propelled their ascent up the hip-hop production ranks. In doing so they reveal an unforeseen musical sophistication, healthily cleansing themselves of all familiar bling-bling excesses, and reinventing themselves by delving into the realm of live instrumentation." Implication being that the synths and "bling-bling excesses" - standing in here for whatever it is that hip-hop is normally up to - obscure "musical sophistication". (I fail to see what is unsophisticated about "Bouncin' Back", for example. Or a number of other more technologically advanced tracks, like say the original version of "Lapdance".) Or that live instrumentation is some great godsend that enables musicians to achieve this sophistication. (Maybe a change in approaches might do musicians some good, but it's not clear that's what's meant here. And given the deep, deep ties to hip-hop and rap on the second, 'live' version of the album, how could I really trust a critic who doesn't get hip-hop?) Elsewhere, newmu's enamored with the "breathless" rock touches; the "edgy" live instruments at "a preferred rawness" for Mixer. Rolling Stone prefers the rock version of "Lapdance", for all the usual reasons, but it's hard to tell why from hearing both versions. (They also note how Pharrell Williams "has brought some melody back to hip-hop" "in the last few years", as if it's ever really been missing.)

Argh. Like I said - I don't have much to say. And I lied. Some of those reviews are better. Entertainment Weekly notes the possibility of reactionary backlash against rap, though it treads into some similar territory at above. (I should note that I can't really begrudge critics the opportunity to say some things like "the live drums are more vigorous", if it really seems that way. But with a record like this I would think a critic would want to be careful with assessments like that, and ask what purpose they serve.)

22 Mar '02 06:17:44 AM

"Perhaps the most fascinating insight to be gained from these pages is not that some intelligent people miscalculated posterity's judgments, or that they didn't like music that most of us now love, but rather that their ears were, in some cases, tuned so differently from ours. It's not hard to empathize, for instance, with the statement written in 1911 about Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces: 'I see in them a complete dissolution of all that was heretofore regarded as musical art.' Even if you love them, the Op. 11 pieces represent, in fact, a more-or-less complete dissolution of all that was heretofore regarded as musical art. But to find little or no melody in Carmen, or Brahms's Second Symphony, or the early operas of Verdi -- that takes your breath away, and makes you realize what a boundless variety of wiring exists between different pairs of ears."

- Peter Schickele, in the foreword to Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time

21 Mar '02 09:11:21 AM

What did you listen to today, Josh?

After I woke up I listened to Dots and Loops. It made me fall back to sleep. But in the good way. There are other parts of other Stereolab records that I like more, but I still enjoy listening to that one more than any other when it means I get the chance to drift in and out with the record. But something always strikes me as odd about the presence of the acoustic guitar. The music doesn't seem otherwise suited to it - because somehow I have the sense that it's the most alien of their records - but I end up not minding.

I listened to disc one of Saint Etienne's Smash the System compilation on my way to campus. I'm still not very comfortable with them - I've only listened to that a few times now and not totally enjoyed it any of them. I think it's the indieness turning me off, but I should say specifically the early nineties British indieness, which is a very different thing from the kind I usually encounter on my CDs, and which has sort of a disappointing take on dance music. "Kiss and Make Up" is almost fabulous, but hearing it the way I did makes it feel forced. It made me imagine, though, how hearing the song pop up on the radio in the car, driving off a fight with a girlfriend, or just feeling lonely, it would be the most perfect thing ever. But I didn't, so it wasn't.

So I could only take so much of that, so with a quick stop at my office I changed to disc nine or so of Monk's Riverside recordings - I think it was mostly some live stuff, maybe from a Five Spot date. Then I got a haircut! (This is a rare occurrance for me.) They were playing Snoop at the hair place. Later on the bus the Monk ended so I switched to disc ten, which has the Town Hall concert on it. "Monk's Mood" seems to me to stick out in Monk's songbook. Though it can vary depending on the band, the soloists tend to stay pretty close to the melodies in the heads of Monk tunes, in some way. (I always think they stay the closest in the Charlie Rouse bands.) Here they do it even more so, in keeping with the ballad tradition, since this is kind of one - the melody is embellished more than made the basis of an improvisation. But that means most of the head is repeated over and over again for the duration of the song - there's a bridge part (I should write down the structure of the thing) but most of the solo turns follow the same structure as Monk's opening statement. Despite what seems like a fatal amount of repetition, it's totally captivating. I'm not sure why right now, but I think one thing that's significant is that the melody seems unusually, I dunno, planned out, for Monk. Also longer - and that may be related to its being more planned out, somehow. (Question from the audience: what, like he didn't spend time planning his OTHER melodies?) OK. Maybe what I mean is that a lot of his melodies rely much more heavily on similar-sounding material transformed somehow. Fuck. I don't know what I mean. It's something, though. It's really something.

Oh yeah. I listened to some Mogwai and some Talk Talk too. Whatever.

19 Mar '02 11:03:01 AM

As much as there is really going on on it, part of the appeal in putting on the Necks' Sex for me consists in the prospect of having almost nothing going on, continuously, for forty-five uninterrupted minutes. Even Pauline Oliveros or Stuart Dempster's records don't quite approach this, with their forty-five-second-decay-time drones, because the sonorities of the instruments (accordion, trombone, conch shell) just carry too much stuff, what with the way they're constantly going, and how they cloud the room. The Necks's slowly changing ostinato is made of much shorter parts - it's almost clipped.

19 Mar '02 06:55:57 AM

I'm listening to Portishead tonight, prompted by a recent thread with a telling subtitle, "are we fickle or did they deserve to become dated so quickly?". I can't remember the last time I listened to Portishead. But without going into some of the things brought up on the thread, which are worthwhile things to think about, no, I don't think I've been fickle in listening to them less and less, and no, I don't think they deserved to become dated so quickly. I don't think it's a matter of them being ripped off and watered down, or whatever else it is imitators and followers are supposed to do to a band, though I can see why their somewhat pervasive influence (is this true?) might turn off other people.

There's other music roughly contemporary with Portishead's that I don't listen to much more (lots of it at all - considering that I listened to Portishead in high school, that I can still enjoy it now is saying something). In and of itself this doesn't say a lot. Too often, I think, people assume that if they stop liking something, it's due to a fault in the music. They overlook the fact that they may change (and just that, change, not necessarily become wiser, or more discerning, though that can happen too).

For one thing, I think Dummy may have been the first record I bought or maybe just really enjoyed that had "beats" (you know what I mean - the "hop" in "trip-hop"). If I'm wrong about that, then I guess history will just be revised, until I recall what it was that came before that record. If I remember right the record is (or was, when people were talking about it) derided as being a "baby's first beats" sort of thing. Hip-hop toned down and made palatable for suburban white people (that is, the ones who weren't already buying it in droves). Maybe there's some truth to that - I don't know. But I do know that since then, I've listened to a lot more beat-based music. I think one important thing behind my listening to Portishead (besides the loads of other reasons) is that it's just sort of been pushed aside by the time and effort I've spent on other things. That's not to say that the music I've replaced them with does beats better (though it may), just that they occupy a similar aesthetic supermarket - definitely located in different aisles - and I've been busy looking for things in the other aisles. The reason I think this is key is that maybe it's not just the case for me, but lots of people that liked Portishead, which may contribute to their more widespread falling out of favor.

I know, this really could have been shorter. I promise I wasn't working up to the supermarket metaphor. It just came out that way.

Listening now I'm surprised at how thin it sounds. (This probably corresponds to something Nitsuh said in the ILM thread, about their appeal.) Surely I've listened to this album on headphones over and over, but now even though it still feels warm it's hard to reconcile that with how it seems it ought to sound given the tiny little sound of so much of it. This may be part of the appeal of "Roads", whose bass is more resonant, and whose string backing is more subtantial. (Bigger sound -> bigger emotional whammo.) The keys at the begining have to be one of the most supremely affective sounds I know.