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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3 Feb '03 07:56:29 AM

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

3 Feb '03 07:52:47 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 07:38:42 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 07:21:39 AM

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

3 Feb '03 07:20:02 AM

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

3 Feb '03 07:19:36 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.

2 Feb '03 07:42:25 AM

My CD changer: is broken. I: am not pleased.

29 Jan '03 06:18:29 AM

At a masterclass for composition students I briefly attended last fall, Libby Larsen discussed some settings she wrote for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (which by the way sounded very good, and had the effect, together with her analysis of sonnet 28, of making me actually want to read the sonnets, which is rare since I don't like pre-modernist poetry much). At some point she indicated something that was happening in the music, and how it was supposed to help create a certain effect that enhanced what was happening in the vocal part and lyric. She said something to this effect: the composer should always hide their tricks from the listener.

I'm not going to discuss that potentially very worrisome imperative at the moment. But, listening to 69 Love Songs tonight I wondered about it. Are there any songs on the album whose tricks I would say are hidden? Are not right out in the open? Are these musical tricks, or lyrical tricks, or both, or neither?

Why do I ask? Considered separately from the whole album, a number of the songs might seem rather cheap, generic (and I don't simply mean, representative of a genre), even if of some measure of distinction. Listening deeply, or for a long time, or all one after the other, I tend to overlook this. This may obscure an effect that might be gotten from leaving the tricks out in the open, which is what might perhaps be going on when it seems like nothing is hiding.

(Or maybe leaving all the tricks out in the open is what makes a song sound generic in this way?)

29 Jan '03 06:03:55 AM

I think tonight, somehow, I started coming around to hearing some of the Claudia girl-with-guitar songs on 69 Love Songs as negative commentaries on faithfully performed songs of those genres or styles. The trick seemed to be thinking, OK, there's no way this could be sincere because it's too awkward, or too lame, or too etc., and Merritt is too good a songwriter. (Obviously this trick elects not to accept the filler thesis.) I'm not totally sure why I have resisted this in the past, despite knowing full well that the album and band have a reputation for, how shall we say, "the irony" and the other things that are supposed to get in the way of sincerity, feelings, all that good love song stuff. Perhaps because so many of the other songs ring truer?

It may say something that these girl-with-guitar songs (I'm not going to go back and check to see that they all fall neatly into a group as I'm suggesting, because I don't want to be wrong at the moment) share this quality, and that it's not just Claudia's presence (some of the other songs she sings on being not apparently deliberately awkwardly written, adverbs oh yeah, and also despite Merritt's predilection for using singers that don't fit the song, which he seems to do more with Claudia, in my recollection, than Dudley or LD or Shirley or himself) that gives them the quality. It's unclear to me simply from the record how ultimately sympathetic Merritt is to music that doesn't value strong soundwriting, in the "traditional" sense. ("Traditional" in quotes because there is obviously a wide historical and stylistic variation in what he's apparently interested in and thus probably values, and while there are probably people who might make a case that this broad variety of "good songs" can be assayed by some single way of "strong songwriting", I am of course suspicious.) But. If you take a number of the songs that don't seem to use any of these deliberately-lame devices (there may be other such devices) as positive assertions of the value of "strong songwriting", then an even stronger case for the girl-with-guitar songs being critical of entire styles of songwriting or performing, or at least a number of instances of those if not the ideas in general.

I am aware that this could have been said more succinctly.