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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Friday, October 19, 2018


I was reading a book proposal.  It was fine, and more than fine in some ways, but what it was missing was the spark, the thing that made you want to read the book.

Then again, I am jaded and rarely excited by people's scholarship. It is natural to think that what you doing is more exciting than other people, but lately I haven't been wowed by someone's book.  I can see why the book is good, or necessary, but that spark is often missing.  


We are singing a Frost setting in choir of "Choose Something Like A Star." The interpretation offered by some (in that context of choir singing) is that it is about sticking to your principles steadfastly, but Frost is more crafty than that:

"It asks of us a certain height / So when at time the mob is moved / To carry praise or blame too far / We may choose something like a star / To stay our minds on and be staid."

Staid means conservative, stodgy. Frost is saying we should keep things in perspective, not follow the mob too far in either direction. The star is above the fray, above it all, "steadfast as Keats' Eremite." We don't have to get too excited about things. The principle here is more like a golden mediocrity than a steadfast commitment to principle or belief.

So what people want the poem to mean reflects their desires, not what the actual words are saying. Frost can have it both ways, seeming to present an inspirational message but in reality offering a more jaded point of view.  Whether you like that point of view or find it abhorrent, it is more interesting than the "follow your beliefs" idea.  


I went through Bob Dylan's Chronicles (Volume 1) very fast. I found it in a used bookstore on my walk and just picked it up and read it immediately. It is written in a very breezy, disconnected way and I find things like this impossible to read except in a very skimming kind of way. It is not badly written since the language is vivid, but it just rambles on.

It turns out that what turned him into a songwriter, as he tells it, was hearing a Kurt Weill / Brecht song, "Pirate Jenny," and then taking it apart, analyzing the hell out of it to see how it worked, and then trying to write songs on that model:

Later I found myself taking the song part, trying to find out what made it tick, why it was so effective. I could see that everything in it was apparent and visible but you didn't notice it too much. [...] It was like the Picasso painting Guernica. This heavy song was a new stimulant for my senses, indeed very much like a folk song but a folk song from a different gallon jug in in a different backyard. [...] I took the song apart and unzipped it--it was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, give it its cutting edge. It also had the ideal chorus for the lyrics. I wanted to figure out how to manipulate and control this particular structure and form which I knew was the key that gave "Pirate Jenny" its resilience and outrageous power.  
[...] I hadn't done anything yet, wasn't any kind of songwriter but I'd become rightly impressed by the physical and ideological possibilities within the confines of lyric and melody. I could see that the type of songs I was leaning towards singing didn't exist and I began playing with the form, trying to grasp it--trying to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot.  
Totally influenced by "Pirate Jenny," though staying far away from its ideological heart, I began fooling around with things ...  

Then he does the same thing with Robert Johnson. "If I hadn't gone to the Theatre de Lys and heard the ballad "Pirate Jenny," it might not have dawned on me to write them [his first songs] ... If I hadn't heard the Robert Johnson record when I did, there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down, that I wouldn't have felt free enough or upraised enough to write."


Thursday, October 18, 2018


I was going to claim that I came up with the idea that you should express as clearly as possible without sacrificing the complexity of the ideas. In other words, write clearly without dumbing anything down. Then I remember Einstein had been credited with something like that that. When I  looked it I found this:
It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.

In its simpler form (make things as simple as possible but no more) it was attributed to Einstein by the composer Roger Sessions, and then taken from Sessions by the poet Louis Zukofksy.  My (Facebook) friend, Mark Scroggins, a prominent Z scholar, is quoted in the article tracking down the quote. There is something of Occam's razor here too: it is a principle of parsimony, as people point out in the comments.  

Attacks on "bad writing" in the humanities used to called "anti-intellectual." And it was argued that since the physicists have their jargon, why can't the humanists?  I'm fine with jargon if its goal is precision. For example, we talk about "extra-diegetic" music in film. That is the film score that the characters in the film cannot hear: it is only for the audience and hence outside of the diegesis of the film. As opposed to a movie in which someone goes into a bar in which a band is playing and it is too loud for them to hear each other.  That's a precise and useful distinction. It's too bad we need Greek to say it, instead of saying "inside the story-telling music" vs. "music for the audience only."

A good test is whether someone can explain a concept to you in their own words and give concrete examples. Then you think they understand it. Or if you ask two separate people to explain it and they come up with compatible explanations. Then you know it is a definition shared by people in the same community, not something that means whatever you want it to mean.  


I have 11,000 words now in my vernacular chapter, discussing flamenco and other approaches to musicalizing Lorca, so I think instead of 12, my original plan, this chapter is going to have 18,000 or so. It is nice to have more to say than you thought rather than less. The problem in a book like this is going to be keeping it short enough, on the theory that nobody wants to read a 400-page book on this.

We've all read those books, based on dissertations, with 3 of 4 chapters, and each chapter doesn't seem to amount to much. The entire book will discuss 4 novels and a film. If I said everything there was to say about four musical works, that could be a book. Or another books that runs rapidly over 100 works. There is no right way to do this, but I'm thinking in terms of proportionality. How much space the topic deserves over all, and then how much attention to devote to each segment. There is no objectively correct amount of words to write about any given thing. What matters is what you want to communicate to the readers, and what you think they will want.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

German: What would a scholar do?

Actually, I just discovered that I can read German. What I do is just read it and I can tell what the paragraph is about, more or less. Then if the paragraph is relevant to me, I can look up words and understand the rest of it in more detail. I can also get someone to check my translation if it is something I will actually quote.

The only way to teach myself to read German is to read something that I have to read with some urgent, and teach myself through that very act. When faced with a scholarly dilemma, you can ask yourself: "what would a scholar do in this case?"  Yes, I know about google translate, but I won't do that.

Las Desenamoradas

Here is a ballet based on La casa de Bernarda Alba. It was set to a recording off the Olé Coltrane album.  I discovered this in a 55-page article written in German, so obviously I am going to have to brush up on my virtually non-existent German reading just to read this article, which talks about a lot of the music I will discussing in the classical chapter.