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 08:30:36 AM

I wanted to wait to write this down until after I had written something about Arnold Davidson's book, The Emergence of Sexuality, but I'm doing it now so I don't forget.

Listening to that Mozart string quartet tonight, I was extremely struck at times how by how dramatic the music seemed. Not just because it was dealing in intense or extreme emotions, somehow - but dramatic by design. Given how often the idea of tension comes up in discussions of the classical style (it's all about tension, by some accounts), the presence of drama shouldn't be surprising. After all, drama is based on tension, conflict, and the intense emotions which come with those.

The reason this is important to me at the moment is that I've been thinking a lot lately about how the success of lots of rap (and not just hyper-real gangsta rap) seems to depend heavily on a very particular kind of theatricality. I don't understand drama or theater that well at all, so I don't even know why I think "theatricality" with respect to hip-hop, and "drama" with respect to Mozart. It may be that I sense more readily that some kind of persona or front is being adopted in rap, which is in keeping with the pretense or artificiality denoted by "theatrical". Of course, what I want to insist is that the stance, the attitude, involved in the string quartet is just as artificial.

It would be nice if I had a better understanding of this stuff, because I think it would make for a useful way of thinking about the emotional dynamics of lots of music.

24 Mar '02 08:15:03 AM

Today I made a tape for Ethan.

Side A: Arab Strap - "The First Big Weekend", Prince - "Sister", The Dismemberment Plan - "The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich", Laika - "Coming Down Glass", Superpitcher - "Tomorrow", Tom Waits - "Straight to the Top (Rhumba)", Bo Diddley - "Diddley Daddy", Bob Dylan - "Tombstone Blues", Charles Mingus - "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me", Mogwai - "Helps Both Ways", Diamanda Galas, "My World Is Empty Without You".

Side B: Thelonious Monk - "Epistrophy", Fela Kuti - "Buy Africa", Pixies - "Tony's Theme", Mouse on Mars - "Yippie" and "Mykologics", Goldfrapp - "Human", Wire - "12XU", Beta Band - "Number 15", Brad Mehldau Trio - "River Man".

PS If you are Ethan do not read this.

24 Mar '02 08:03:57 AM

Bartok's String Quartet No. 5 has funny non-endings to the movements. But I think that's vastly superior to the kind of ending that says AND NOW... HERE... IS THE... ENDING... COMING UP REAL SOON HERE OK ENDING RIIIIIIIGHT... NOW NOW NOW! Note that the presence of this kind of ending is not simply determined by a function that decreases with the advance of time.

At the national American Society for Aesthetics meeting this fall I attended a session about Adorno and music. A composer who spoke held up I think Bartok's third quartet as an example of the kind of vital composition which engages with the vernacular (is how I think he put it) which he advocated. (It was supposed to be sort of ironic I guess that we are to turn to Bartok - ignored in the wake of serialism and other twentieth century developments.)

Listening to Bartok now, I have to admit that he got part of the engagement with the vernacular thing right. (I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to expect him to, though.) Something tells me that it would take a hell of a lot of catching up to engage the current vernacular (as if it were a unified thing!).

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