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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.

Instant Comparisons

You can find two composers, or three, who have set the same poem to music. It is instant comparison time. This is a very basic framework that everyone knows from grammar school, the "compare and contrast." Almost everyone can do it, and it provides its own inherent organizational principle.


A colleague pointed out to me once, and I can't remember the words so I am paraphrasing and reinterpreting a bit, that since I didn't use the clotted academic style people might not associate me with a certain type of scholar, those who are trying to be theoretically brilliant at all times. He meant it as a compliment. I've evolved so that I write in order to put across my ideas rather than to prove to others or myself that I am a smart guy. That clotted, jargon-filled academic style is designed to be authoritative and a bit forbidding. I don't dumb thing down (I hope) but I try to write with the precise degree of complexity needed to do justice to the complexity of the ideas, and absolutely nothing more. We have to write for people who think hermeneutic is a hard word. I have a big vocabulary, but I have to look up words too. I'll spring a big word on you once in a while, but it is for effect, and not automatic. It will be a tasty word like chthonic, not something pretentious.      

Tuesday, October 16, 2018


I don't know how to compose beyond the 32-bar AABA or AABA song. I can write an intro to one of those, so that's another 8 measures, or a tag ending of another 4, but I don't know how to develop thematic material. The best I've come up with is 3 32 bar structures in a row, with related material. As I've said before, I'm surprised that I can write music at all, so I should be happy with that.

Maybe I should do a rondo, with an "ABACABA" form, or stick to my suites, or simply write phrases longer than 8 measures.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Four or Five Postmodernisms

The first was postmodern literature and architecture. These are postmodern movements in actual art forms. In fiction, for example, it was metafiction. In architecture, pastiche elements and the break from architectural modernism. This chugged along until the second postmodernism took hold.

This was based on Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, published shortly after people were getting used to postmodernism in actual art forms. Lyotard wiped out the first definition of postmodernism by making the postmodern the name for a philosophical tendency to distrust grands récits, or sweeping narratives that could explain everything.

In Lyotard's wake, postmodernism becomes synonymous with everything that we ought to call poststructuralism. All of sudden, Derrida was postmodernist.  It must have been news to him.

In the social sciences and fields removed from philosophy and literary studies, postmodernism then became all of that, but divorced from its intellectual contexts. In some fields they began to quote Foucault without really studying him. Postmodernism became "anything goes" bullshit.

Then, of course, it was ripe for right-wing satire and critique.  Postmodernism meant there was not truth, etc... To the point where anti-postmodern movement like gender essentialism and Marxism could be called postmodern too. Now I've lost count of how many postmodernisms there are.    

You are descended from who you think you are

Go back 30 generations or so, and you have billion ancestors. The only problem is that there weren't a billion people on the face of the earth 1,000 years ago, so you are really descended from just about everyone, in some particular corner of the world, everyone that is who actually has living descendants at all.  

The further you go back, the more you're descended from everybody (or anybody) but from nobody in particular. Go back 10 generations, and that is 2 to the power of 10, so you share only a tiny bit with that particular ancestor, about a tenth of percent. So even if biological descent is relevant to you, you should not look back more than a few generations. If you know who your grandparents are and who they think they are descended from, more or less, that's all you need.     


By Heart

Knowing a piano piece by memory is a bit like knowing a poem. It is part of me, and its meaning can shift and deepen over time. It comes out differently expressed depending on my particular feeling to it on a particular day. It is a bit surprising that it has taken me until today to realize this.

I played a piece once with about as much rubato as I could without losing the flow of time. Nothing exaggerated, but with a definite feeling of freedom. Then I played it again more metronomically, with only the slightest variation of time at certain places. The piece can seem ethereal, or stormy, or detached, angsty, or many other things. I could exaggerate something in bad taste, or fail in my intention to communicate a given feeling, but I could also produce something satisfying to my mood of a particular day.

Someone else's recording of it does not shift like that. It is frozen, so of course I can get the satisfaction out of a version I like, recorded by someone else, but it will not have that organic relationship to my own subjectivity.

Most things I read about music don't talk about things like this. I have to discover anything truly important for myself. Even if this is well known to everyone, I'm assuming (though I learned it today), and probably easy information to find, it is hard to find this out.      

Another Experiment

I gave an assignment to re-write a short-story from the perspective of another character. It turned out brilliantly.  I was in awe of many of my students who do the assignment better than I could.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Illusion

I get the illusion that people are going to be get tired of hearing me talk about Lorca.

But everyone else is not living in my head and doesn't have to hear it 24 hours a day like I do, so when I do talk about it it might still be fresh for them.

I was thinking my piano teacher was going to get tired of Mompou, but that is only 45 minutes of her week, whereas for me it is an hour a day or so.  I am not with anyone else on a daily basis who is going to get as tired of me as I myself am.


In recent dreams I have been explaining things to graduate students, giving very concrete feedback: once on a presentation, another time on a paper. These are not dream-like dreams, since I would give the exact same feedback during my waking hours, and the advice is specific and realistic.  I am taking my work to bed with me.    

Saturday, October 13, 2018


I am teaching myself by producing scholarship about something I don't know very well (yet). I always think I should first learn something and then write about it, but it doesn't work that way for me. As a result, I am likely to produce something that is has a large built-in margin for error, or that is less confident than it ought to be. I could write a pretty good book about music after I write this one, probably.

On the other hand, I often find that I know more than I knew I knew. I think all my jazz background is an excellent preparation, even though jazz will hardly appear.  I like these weird non-coincidences or anomalies, like I finally get to write a book about music, but it will not be about the genre I know the best. Things like that often happen to me because of the way my mind works, in a more lateral than a linear way.  

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Dream of Sestina Gin

There was a bottle of gin on the table of a bar. My daughter had ordered it and I had a beer. The gin bottle had a chart of which particular gin was in each layer of the bottle, and the arrangement of the six gins followed the pattern of the poetic form known as the sestina. Except that it was inexact: I found an error in the second "stanza" of the bottle. My daughter poured me a small shot of the gin into a tall glass, since I hadn't ordered this especially poetic gin. It tasted like ordinary gin to me. As I was waking up I couldn't figure out if the gin was all mingled together (in which case the sestina form was kind of otiose), or whether somehow the bottle itself was divided into discrete layers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


I told my undergraduate course to come up with the most extravagant and impossible interpretations of two Cortázar stories, "Continuidad de los parques" and "Axolotl."

I did the same thing, in my grade course, with Neruda's "Oda al tomate."

A funny thing happened: their readings were actually pretty good. They started really discussing the texts without fear of being wrong.  

I recommend

I recommend the work buddy system.  Here's how it works. You meet once a week, in person or by Skype, and talk for an hour, 25 minutes about each of your projects, with 10 minutes for small talk and hellos and goodbyes at the beginning and end, and a bit of spill over.  It is egalitarian, with both parties getting equal time, so there is no exploitation involved.  If it doesn't work for both people, then it won't work. Nobody should feel they are giving more than they are getting. The focus should be on the ideas themselves, and secondarily about secondary issues. It is not about how many hours or words you have written, but about intellectual content.

I Get Comments

I got some comments on my paper from people in the faculty seminar I am in this semester.  It was a paper that summarized my book and gave some musical examples:

"You write so incredibly smoothly and convincingly that it was just a joy to read."

"You must be having a lot of fun with this project."

Well, yes.  If you aren't having fun, then why do research at all?  I could rest on my laurels and retire in 10 years having had a great career already.  

What do people know?

I'm interested in defining what people know about music who listen with pleasure, hence understanding, but have no knowledge in the technical sense. They can't read music, say, or give definitions of technical terms.  

I think people can feel a chord change in a popular song.  The more or less know that the chord changes and can identity where it happens. They can feel a beat if that is relevant to the style, or some kind of pulse if it is evident.

People can feel the length of a musical phrase as being natural, if it is 4 or 8 bars, say.  They can tell when something is repeated, or when one musical phrase answers another (question and answer).  They can recognize a cadence: when at the end of a phrase or section or piece the music resolves and ends. They could recognize a theme and variations form. They can be responsive to timbres and textures; attribute emotions to music (nervous sounding music at the point of the film score to make you nervous). They can use words like "pretty" or "muddy" or "weird."

It's obvious that people can do this, because if you couldn't, then only musicians would listen to music. Also, it's obvious that people who do not understand certain music, music that requires more than his kind of capability, say is:  "I don't understand it." When I don't understand something in music, I cannot follow it, I cannot understand what is happening or why something is happening--say with Indian classical traditions that I just don't "get." Or someone who doesn't like jazz because it just sounds like random scales improvised pointlessly over a nervous sounding rhythm.

When I listen to Mozart, I am just following along a theme, then I say to myself, now he is doing something different for a while, and then oh, back to that but slightly different, and now the end is coming. I'm not thinking about technicalities at all.  It is enjoyable because the themes are enjoyable, and the structures are well-formed on an intuitive level, and the contrasts are interesting, and the tensions are resolved the way you want them to be. I recognize some forms of musical wit, and respond to emotional cues, etc...

The reason I am posing this is a question is that I don't know what people know, hence I don't know how to write about music for an audience I am imagining in my head: someone with near zero knowledge in the technical sense but significant ability to respond to music as a listener.

The Crisis in Knowledge

Knowledge is under attack from several fronts at once. In science itself, it is due to corporate corruption and the inherent bias toward interesting but possibly false results. There was that paper about how most scientific findings are false. 

In social science, there is a replicability crisis in social psychology and various forms of p-hacking and statistical overstatements. Then there are entire fields that just don't seem that rigorous in the first place, the typical things people look down on like management studies and education. Economics is corrupt because of its upholding of the economic status quo.  The humanities have their own well-known problems.

What all these things have in common is that institutions are self-perpetuating, and that there are greater incentives for various stake-holders in having the system we have than in having a system guaranteed to produce a better variety of knowledge. Sturgeon's Law would say that only 10% of everything is going to be of value, so in order to have the 10%, we need to reconcile ourselves to the 90% of crap.  We can't just cut out the 90% because then we wouldn't have enough critical mass to even keep going institutionally.


I noticed in a lot of the reviews of the "grievance" articles what I would call "faux-respect." It is the way you write when you know the paper you are reviewing is shit, but you also know the expected tone you take with any paper is respectful. So people are bending over backwards to maintain a respectful tone when really, you know what they are thinking is "this is crap, what the hell can I say about it." It doesn't take a hermeneutic genius to read between the lines here.

So it is rather disingenuous for the authors of the grievance studies fake studies to say "look, we got a respectful hearing for our pieces of crap." I'm sure I've used the faux-respect tone myself.  It is still bad that they got any of this published, at a 35% acceptance rate, but they can't claim that the respectful hearing they got from reviewers who rejected them was a symptom of some deep problem in the field. I would have probably taken a faux-respectful tone with the Starbucks paper which I think is a pig pile of crap. If this had been a hoax paper, then the authors could have turned around and made you look foolish for being respectful toward a paper based on a handful of cultural stereotypes that tries to lend its support to BLM.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Starbucks Studies

Here's some trivial scholarship on why white girls like Starbucks:  See my bracketed comments:

The status symbol is not any over-the-top caloric, sweet drink, nor does it come from just any place. [A classic move in which the origin of something is supposed to be revelatory: not just any place, but...] Starbucks PSLs are products of coffee shop culture, with its gendered and racial codes [Everything has gendered and racial codes, right?]. European historians such as Ellis (2004Ellis, M. 2004The coffee house: A cultural historyLondonWeidenfeld & Nicolson. [Google Scholar]Ellis, M. 2004The coffee house: A cultural historyLondonWeidenfeld & Nicolson. [Google Scholar]) in Coffee House, find coffee shop culture’s roots in the British Empire of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. [who cares? does his really relate to contemporary situations?] Deeply masculine spaces, [ok, so what? That is trying to identify them with something bad in a ritualized denunciation, but pointless in this context because the point is to scorn white girls who order Starbucks.] coffee shops witnessed political debates, rebellion planning, and religious foment. [and people hanging out not engaged in anything related to this.] Not until the 1950s’ reemergence of coffee houses as Italian espresso bars did they “represent a place where people of all kinds could socialise together: richer with poorer, migrants with metropoles, women with men, creating a space that seemed to [did it seem to reject those values or really reject them?] reject the values of official discourse on class, gender and race” (245). [Pretentious.] Concurrent with women’s entrance were milky, sweet drinks; Ellis called them together the “lactification of the coffee-house.” His odd phrase nonetheless makes visible underlying feminizing and whitening of drinks, spaces, and practices of coffee shops. [This border on misogyny; it is easy to make fun of white women, apparently since they drink lattes] Ellis concluded, “The sociability of the chain coffee bar has cut its links with the vengeful, transgressive crowd, on the verge of insurrection. It is not simply that the mob has been excluded by the anodyne luxury of the corporate coffee shop, but that these places cultivate a sociability designed to reform the mob into a more tranquil, even docile, crowd of consumers” (258).66 Although Ellis focused mostly on European and U.S. coffee shop cultures, the demonstrations of whiteness encapsulated by Starbucks patronage might extend to other countries and continents as well. For instance, Spracklen (2013Spracklen, K. 2013Whiteness and leisureNew YorkPalgrave McMillan.[Crossref], [Google Scholar]), in his Whiteness and Leisure, argued, “In late modernity, drinking a latte has become a marker of whiteness, Westernization, and bourgeois sophistication. In developing countries such as South Africa and Kenya, local drinking practices have been swapped by the new elites in those countries for the taste of Americanized coffee. The new black economic elites in South Africa and Kenya have adopted white, Western, middle-class styles—through going to Starbucks they are becoming white in the same way the black political elites have adopted golf clubs in Kenya” (143).View all notes6 Although Ellis focused mostly on European and U.S. coffee shop cultures, the demonstrations of whiteness encapsulated by Starbucks patronage might extend to other countries and continents as well. For instance, Spracklen (2013Spracklen, K. 2013Whiteness and leisureNew YorkPalgrave McMillan.[Crossref], [Google Scholar]Spracklen, K. 2013Whiteness and leisureNew YorkPalgrave McMillan.[Crossref], [Google Scholar]), in his Whiteness and Leisure, argued, “In late modernity, drinking a latte has become a marker of whiteness, Westernization, and bourgeois sophistication. In developing countries such as South Africa and Kenya, local drinking practices have been swapped by the new elites in those countries for the taste of Americanized coffee. The new black economic elites in South Africa and Kenya have adopted white, Western, middle-class styles—through going to Starbucks they are becoming white in the same way the black political elites have adopted golf clubs in Kenya” (143).View all notes [pretentious. All this says is that a corporate Starbucks is not like some stereotype of a beatnik coffee shop.] Ellis’s prescience was demonstrated as 200 million lactified, docile consumers ordered their PSLs. [borderline racist misogyny: white girls are "lactified" {whatever that means} and "docile"] 

One of the authors is

ELIZABETH S. D. ENGELHARDT is the John Shelton Reed Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599–3520. Her interdisciplinary research interests include Southern cultures, gender, food studies in the humanities, feminist theories, Appalachian studies, public humanities, oral history practices, and the intersections of race, class, and gender in American literature and society. 

A Flaw in the Ointment

The concept of "opportunity cost" seems flawed because it assumes that we can know what is being lost. It works in limited contexts where we can know exactly what is given up, but if we take the concept of time, for example, the opportunity cost of an hour could be expressed as endlessly variable possibilities. Even with a limited gamut of possibilities, say, reading, there are hundreds of thousands of books that I could reading instead of the one I am reading. I cannot stop myself and consider whether I should be listening to another piece of music, because there is no way of saying that anyone could ever choose wisely enough among competing musics.

I probably don't understand the concept well enough yet, not being an economist.


I remember my first conference. It was the KFLC.  It would have been 1986 or so. I was a graduate student, and the panel consisted of me and 3 other graduate students. The moderator was a prick in suit, someone already established in the field of Golden Age. There was no audience except for the panel itself, and we met in a classroom.  The prick was very condescending to us and I despise him to this day for that. He said something about how we would eventually learn to do mature scholarship.  

Our papers were actually very good, because we were a generation that was using theory and had a certain standard for ourselves.  I still remember who one of the panelists was though I have lost track of her.

I went to other panels in the conference. I was shocked to find people doing plot summaries with a straight face and papers with the intellectual level of a high school student, a kind of rudimentary descriptive thematic summary.  So I resented being condescended to by this prick. What I was presenting got to the editorial board of PMLA before being finally rejected.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Opportunity costs: promotion to full

This Nobel prize winner made a calculation that going up for promotion was not worth the effort that would be spent on other things. If there is no pay raise involved, why fill out some forms to get promoted? She describes herself as "lazy" but I doubt she is.  The process of going up should not be so onerous that people don't bother to do it.  And there should be an incentive.

And the department chair should basically be on top of things and make people get promoted on time.   If you can win the Nobel Prize in physics then you should be a full professor already without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops. Einstein would be probably be told today he wasn't productive enough. Like, "what have you done since that relativity thing, and that other relativity thing..."  


Ineffability is a literary trope, so the ineffability of music is also a literary trope. The idea that music is something you cannot really talk about, or shouldn't talk or write about, runs through music criticism, writing about music or "dancing about architecture."  What is the point of it? 

Barthes talks about the tyranny of the adjective:  "To ascertain whether there are (verbal) means for talking about music without adjectives, it would be necessary to look at more or less the whole of music criticism, something which I believe has never been done."  Rosen says that musical analysis should "state the obvious." But then what is it good for, really?  

I happen to like adjectives, by the way. See my recent "dream of adjectives."   

We can talk in very precise terms about music, but then we are repeating the score: the melody begins with an octave leaps... It would be like expecting a very precise verbal description of a map to be useful for reading the map, or as good as a map at what a map does. We would just say, show me the map. Or we could play the score and say: "this is what it is." Music is very precise in its emotional valences. It says exactly what it says, in its own language, so we don't need a verbal translation of that. 

Yet I don't see writing about music as particularly problematic. What you do is to talk about what needs talking about, in any given case. Do you need to describe a texture, point out a structural feature, generalize about a performer? What I don't like is talking about music in the wrong way. The first wrong way is not talking about it at all, so that you talk about everything except the music: the words of the song, the composer's life... The second is to over-interpret, to state things that the listener is not hearing, that are not "obvious" or palpable in some way. 

I don't share the "ekphrastic fear" (W.J.T. Mitchell as quoted by Kramer in "Oracular Musicology; or, Faking the Ineffable." The idea that language will destroy the immediacy of the thing itself. What makes me nervous is that the verbal meanings found will be "wretched ones," simple disappointments. I fear the bad paraphrase.       


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Opportunity Costs of Conference Papers

I see people's CVs that have an enormous imbalance between conference papers and publications. They will have gone to 3 or 4 conferences a year, while not having a proportionate number of published articles. I see this in our graduate students all the time.

So the conference paper, instead of being a spur to publishing your research, becomes an easier alternative to publishing. If you can write 4 papers in a year, that's 36 pages. That should be an article or two. Ideally, the ratio should be 1/1.  Every conference paper should be the germ of a book chapter or article. You should put the extra work into publishing the paper in expanded form. You might even think of having more articles than presented papers on your cv.  

Conferences are fine, but I'd rather see you go to a couple a year, at most, and have two articles that year, than have you go to 5 and have 0 or 1 article.

I see this as a direct opportunity cost of a conference. It takes time to write the paper, to travel to the site, to stay there a few days. This is time taken out of the research basket. The benefits are few, in some cases. You get to talk for 20 minutes to 8 people who may or may not be interested. You might get some feedback, but sometimes you won't. Especially at a conference organized for and by graduate students, you might not make any significant professional contacts.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Opportunity Costs

I posted once about how much meetings and reading useless emails cost universities: the hourly salary-rates of everyone engaged in this, times the number of hours it takes.  So an hour long meeting, with 10 people making $50 an hour, is a $500 meeting.

Of course, the university does not pay $500 extra for this meeting, so how can it be said to cost the university anything at all? What we are really saying is that the cost of the meeting is the equivalent $500 taken away from something else. It is $500 less research, for example. Now you might think that the faculty members can just work an extra hour on their own time to make up for the meeting. That is true up to a certain point, but people will say they are too busy to get to their research during some weeks.

This is known as an opportunity cost. So the problem is not, say, that watching tv is bad, but that it takes the place of some other activity that would be better. What would you be doing otherwise? All the special initiatives, all the wonderful projects that are not teaching and research, cumulatively end up sapping away resources from the primary mission of the university.  

A Dream of Rhythm Changes

I was in a lesson and was supposed to play along with the teacher and some other people on rhythm changes. I started by playing a walking bass in my left hand but I was told "Enough of that bass," so I gave that up. I simply could not play anything, though they were all playing coherently through the changes; I didn't even touch the keyboard through an entire chorus.

 I finally said I wanted to play it by myself.  I did, without looking at my hands, and without being sure of the notes of the chords either. It started badly and got worse and worse, until the final phrase was completely atonal.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Don't do this

A talk I went to several years ago.  I'm changing details or being vague so as not to identify anything about who it was.

A power point presentation in a very boring visual style, with mostly all text, that the person read out loud or explained. So the audience saw the words, read them in a few seconds, and then had them more sloooowly explained.  The talk went on and on, for about 75 minutes. It was all in abstractions until the end, an example of one film at the very end, with a plot summary for those of us unfamiliar with it. The bulk of the talk was explicitly framed as "digressions." But then, digressions from what?

There was information and opinions, but not a coherent argument running through it, or a thesis. One slide would be "so and so says this."  We would get four bullet points about that.

There was no elegance of style or expression, no effort to put words together in a rhetorically convincing way.  No humor.

The person privileged literature by beginning and ending with it, and somehow seeing it as the ultimate horizon, but then we never got to hear about any literary works, not a single name of a novelist or poet.  It's fine not to talk about literature, but why set up the expectation that you will?  

More on Grievance

I did a series on bullshit fields once.  I was thinking more of the evolutionary psychology sort of thing, or the social psychology of the sort that has been so hard to replicate. The Grievance Studies hoax just targeted certain fields, which are also bullshitty in many manifestations, but the authors of the study do not seem to grasp concepts like postmodernism and social constructionism, at least in their strong forms. Yes, there is a strong form of social constructionism that is pretty easy to establish. We can conclude, for example, that the days of the week don't correspond to any fact in nature, but are the product of a social compact. Thursday is socially constructed. The same goes for almost anything that is the result of how humans have decided to construct their reality. There are whole categories of things that are socially constructed, like literature itself. What makes something objectively speaking a poem? The fact that people call it a poem. We can show this because in different periods, or between different literary cultures, the definition shifts.

Where this theory gets into trouble is when it is misapplied to mean that we can call things whatever we want and thereby bend reality to our wishes in arbitrary ways. If gender is socially constructed (which it is) then we can have 500 genders. Not really.

The post by Henry at Crooked Timber points out that other fields have manifestly ridiculous findings that could be parodied just as easily.  So why go after some fields and not others? Why pick on the poor gender and queer theory people?  I wouldn't leave them out of the general critique of the epistemological weakness of contemporary scholarship, but I would say other fields are also manifestly bad. I was talking to Thomas the other day about management studies. I'm sure I could publish a bullshit business school article that I wrote in 2 hours, once I got a hang of the genre.


I reviewed an essay for Hispanic Review on a Lorca film script, Viaje a la luna.  I was as tough on it as my usual self, and recommended a revise and resubmit.  I could tell the person who was writing it knew what he was talking about, and the next version came back and I recommended publication.  It ended up being a scholar who knows far more about Lorca than I do, one of the top scholars in the field. I could have just accepted it in the first place, but I prefer A+ scholarship to A scholarship, so I recommended a revision.

In a legit field, you should be able to tell whether someone knows what they are talking about or is bullshitting you.  You should be able to distinguish the real thing from the parody.        

A Dream of Adjectives

My father commented to me that my most recent book had a lot of adjectives.  I responded to him like this:

"The adjective is much maligned. Actually, the adjective is what gives color and nuance to prose. You can come up with two adjectives that seem to conflict with each other but describe the same object, like 'volatile and engaging.'"

I cannot transcribe that an more accurately than I have done. I know that the words maligned, color, volatile and engaging accurate to the dream.

As I was awaking I realized I hadn't talked to my father in quite some time, since he died in 2001.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


From the grievance studies scandal  the logical conclusion is that there is no longer a "smell test" operative, a way in which someone could just say "that sounds ridiculous on its face so it probably is, let me look at the data and methodology even harder in this case." We have to be a bit cautious, because it is possible that something ridiculous-sounding is also a valid conclusion, or that today's ridiculousness is tomorrows boring consensus.

Of course the right-wing media love this sort of thing.  I'm not angry that someone has shown that many fields in the humanities are mostly bullshitty.  I am angry that they are like that in the first place.

What I learn from musicians

I remember hearing on the radio once and saying to myself, oh, that's "Art Blakey (drums) and Paul Chambers playing, I didn't know they had played together." So I was learning to hear with that fine-grained attentiveness and distinguish nuances beyond what most people can hear. Then to be able to analyze and put it in words, as well.  So number 1 is that attentiveness, fine listening.

Secondly, musicians know that the basics have to be in place and that learning is cumulative. There is no skipping steps. Musicality can be present even at the most basic level. Music "theory" is not theory in the sense of literary or even scientific theory, it's the actual description of what the thing is. So number 2 is a sense of being grounded in basics.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Information problem and movement problem

The piano teacher in the post below, Dr. John Mortensen, distinguishes between information problems and movement problems.

The information problem is when you can't read the music. You don't know, in a literal sense, what those notes are, or how to count that particular rhythm.  He says that practicing is problem solving, so you solve that problem by figuring it out.

A movement problem is when you can't physically play something on the piano.  You can't make your fingers do that easily. So you solve that problem by fingering, grouping, etc... getting to the point where you fingers will play it correctly at a slowed down tempo.

The main take-away is that practice is problem solving.  I had not thought about this before, though I had distinguished in my mind between things I couldn't play because I couldn't read them, and things that I couldn't play because I couldn't play them physically.  It is helpful to know what kind of problem you have.

I play through the easy lines over and over, and then work for a bit on the hard parts. Obviously this is backwards. As he explains in another video, you have to divide the piece into playable parts and non-playable parts, and only work on the non-playable parts until they become playable.

There's another kind of practice where, once I know a piece well and have memorized it, I play it in order to rehearse it for recording or performance, even if the performance is only for my teacher in my lesson.  This guy says that your performances will reflect how you have practiced. So he can hear a student play and immediately know how the student practiced, what sh/e did or did not do.

How to Practice. Part 1: The Artistic Vision

This guy is great.  I'm doing some of this already. I listen to other recordings. I learn the melody. I know the musical form and phrase structure. I can start conducting the piece away from the piano and some of the other hints here.   I've learned to have an "artistic vision" even though I still am not a good or even mediocre player yet.  You might say I have "delusions of mediocrity," to use a phrase I invented once.  My goal is to play a very easy piece and make it sound like a very good pianist would play it.

I need to get any piece up to a place where it is as easy as playing "Mary had a little lamb" with one hand in C major.  Then all my attention goes into the expressivity and dynamics. If I can do that with a slightly moderate piece in terms of difficulty then I will have achieved my mediocrity.

Surprising an Idea

You are thinking about things, there is this and that, blah blah.  Just your normal stream of consciousness when you are thinking about the ideas of your project. At some point you have an idea that is crucial, that makes a lot of other things make sense. But you might not realize that this is an excellent or even a good idea yet. It might not even be an idea yet, but simply a thought with no particular importance attached to it.

So the trick is to listen to yourself and hear those ideas.

So brainstorming is not just writing down everything that comes into your head, but observing everything and being able to recognize an idea when it comes along. You have to catch yourself in the act of being smart.

We've all had the student who can contribute to class discussion meaningfully but can't get the ideas on paper.  I like to compliment the student in the act of formulating a good idea in class. Then the other students realize what it is I am looking for.  

Monday, October 1, 2018

Annals of Forced Comparisons (ii)

I was reading in Cooke's book The Language of Music that tonality in Western Music was based on the I, the IV, and the V.  That's obvious, of course. Those are the big three chords of pop music too, and of the blues.  

So to compare the system of tonality, in its entirety, to the blues, seems very forced. Someone who knew how to play blues very well, like Ray Charles, for example, would also know how to play the Andalusian cadence, as in "Hit the Road Jack," or the I, vi, ii, V progression in numerous pop songs. In jazz contexts, the blues might use other harmonic substitutions too.

My Study Abroad Year

I took a course from Andrés Amorós. He was / is a scholar of Pérez de Ayala, so I read a lot of PdA in his editions.  This was a course for Spanish students, so the Americans in it had a tutor.  I read La Regenta and loved it, and wrote a great answer on it on the final exam. The other question was on Fray Gerundio.  I had not read this novel so I totally faked it on the exam. Amarós wrote that my exam was "uneven," if uneven meant one really good answer on a novel you've actually read and one bad answer on one you never even started.

 I still haven't read Fray Gerundio, one of the few 18th century Spanish novels and a satire of baroque sermons (so I've been told). I read a lot of Galdós for his course, which led to my first marriage. It was nice to read a book and then go to the exact streets where the characters lived.

 The format was lecture, lecture, lecture. I asked a question once, what was "ilustración"?  It turned out to be the enlightenment. Who would have guessed? I was thinking of pictures in a children's book!

I took an art history course that met in the Prado once a week, but usually was in the Complutense.  When the instructor turned off the lights to show her slides, I would inevitably get drowsy, having been up until 2 the previous night. I wrote a highly detailed paper on a painting on the "Noli me tangere" theme hanging in the Prado. I will find it for you if you ask me in the comments. It is a very beautiful painting of Mary Magdalene and Jesus almost touching their hands.  

I tried Bousoño's class but he was a pedant.  He spend the entire hour explicating one line of a Lorca poem, the first line of "Romance de la guardia civil española."  I switched to Claudio Rodríguez, and then ended up writing a dissertation on him.

I studied with José Luis Cano, who had known Lorca. He was really a disciple of Aleixandre, though. We studied Lorca, Aleixandre, and Guillén.  He told us about the ASA pattern. (Adjective noun adjective) in all of Aleixandre's work. I took a Golden Age course.  I remember Fray Luis de León and little else from it.

This year in Spain made me a Hispanist, because I would have been an English major otherwise. There could have been other courses too, but that's all I remember.      


At home there was an Andalusian with a colorful vocabulary.  It took me a few months to realize what "mecagenlotia" meant.  Or "mecagendios" or mecagenlamdarequeteparió." It was confusing to learn that "de puta madre" meant "excellent."  Hash was "chocolate" and was bought in foil like a Hershey bar would come in.

The Big Lie

The big lie I used to tell myself was that I am not "musical." Never mind being obsessed with music for my entire life, but of course I am not a skilled performer on any instrument, or singing, and other family members have more skill and / or knowledge than I do, so I am not the musician of the family, and never will be.


First rule: don't be a dilettante.

Second rule: don't let your fear of being a dilettante prevent you from doing what you know you ought to do.

Mompou, Música callada X

Pardon the image on the video.  There ought to be a way of uploading an MP3 rather than having to do it as a video.  Pardon my playing too. I'm sure I'll be embarrassed a year later by this. But that is because I am making some progress.

What I was going for was a certain sound on the piano. I was playing on a Steinway at the music building that had a real meaty bass register, and a really loooooong decay. and so I played the piece a bit bombastically, with some storminess rather than cantabile, and some mudiness in the sustain pedal. Still, this for me is good playing, the best I've been able to achieve in the classical vein.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

My first Spanish lit course

I know we read Machado.  I remember the poem "Daba el reloj las doce" and "En las ascuas de un crepúsculo morado." The instructor was named Robert Scari, and was from Argentina. We read Historia de una escalera, by Buero Vallejo, and Requiem por un campesino español. I think also El gesticulador, by Usigli.

The second class was more advanced, and was devoted to the modern Spanish novel.  The instructor was Reed Anderson. We read Unamuno, Niebla, El árbol de la ciencia, something by Fernández Santos whose title will come to me in a second, La cabeza del cordero, by Ayala.  The word "algarabía" appeared on the first page of Baroja's novel, and I had looked it up. The professor asked me what it meant and I was able to say.

This was 40 years ago.  I do not have an extraordinary memory, it is just that my education was cumulative, so that I related later things I read to this foundation.

The first book I bought in Spain was a copy of Miguel Hernández in bookstore in San Sebastián. I still have this book, an anthology of his love poetry edited by Leopolodo de Luis.  I don't know how I knew to buy it, but I figured it out somehow.  


I improvised this beginning tag to song I'd already composed. I improvised the chords and melody at the same time with the tape rolling. The intro is much better than the song but I don't know what it is. I'd have to transcribe it again for myself.

Ut pictura poesis

I was working on my course description and jogging. The running felt very labored; the street was crowed with joggers going in both directions. So when I woke up I naturally continued to work on my description.  I was wheezing a bit so that maybe explains the running part.


It will be called "Interartistic Approaches..."

There will be four segments.

Ekphrasis and its discontents. (Horace, Lessing... W.J.T Mitchell... María Victoria Atencia; Margot Persin).

Visual poetry. (Emblem poetry; Apollinaire; concrete poetry; Ullán)

Poetry in performance, but without singing.  (Kuhnheim, Bernstein...).

Musical adaptations; words and music in culto and vernacular traditions. (John Hollander)

This is not a Lorca seminar, for once, but it really is.  Ha Ha.  How could anything I do not be a Lorca seminar? It will allow me to talk about some ideas I've talked about before, like the difference between visuality in poetry and poetry that talks about a painting.

By the way, people have been misquoting that Horace tag for centuries. What it is is not an assertion that poetry and pictures are the same, but that they are the same in certain respects.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Travel Poem

I can't write when I travel

my observations seem banal to me

what anyone else might observe

or else simply mistaken or distorted

I can't write the Fulbright travelogue, the tourist poem

I am a poor tourist, I like residing more than visiting

I do like traveling, the odd distortions of time and place

and beauties produced by disorientation

"the strange hours we keep to see them"

as William Carlos Williams put it

so jet lag is actually a good thing!

but I don't like trying to have experiences other people expect me to have

or writing down my reactions to what I see

my, those Alps are steep!

so I can't write anything about bleak and beautiful Cuba

Patagonia where I have never been

I like traveling to give a talk or meet people

interested in my ideas about things

I like being away and coming back

trying to talk to people in the language of the place

and reading novels in languages I don't fully comprehend on the plane back

Dream of Intellectual Dialogue

There was a complex game of intellectual dialogue, the participants were people at the university in different department, male and female. The content of what anyone said was not important, or not memorable in any way upon awakening, only the texture of the dialogue. Gradually, the rules of the game disappeared, and it just became an extended conversation. There was no "setting," no spatial configuration, just the ideas themselves and the personalities of those expressing them.


I read a book by Deryck Cooke called The Language of Music, recommended by a commenter to this blog. [Thanks!] It was published in 1958 and Cooke was a musicologist working for the BBC and specializing in Mahler and Wagner.

Cooke sees the language of music mostly as an emotionally expressive one, and shows how certain sequences of notes of a scale are used over and over by composers to express the same emotion. 1,3, 5, 6, 5 in a major scale expresses innocent joy... Things like that.  It is surprisingly convincing. Within  the system of Western tonal music, we do hear these melodic snippets in this way, and he is able to name them with precision. Each interval also has a valence that is more or less determinate.

It is well written, and the musical example are easy to follow. You can just pluck them out on a keyboard because they are just snippets of melody, in most cases. It can be read by anyone who can read music at an elementary level. He also can answer questions like how composers are able to create original ideas out of these nuclei of melodic meaning. (Mostly through rhythmic variations.)

(Of course, I would have to go through it again and play each example rather than skimming through and audiating a few in my head.)

This anticipates the new musicology's preoccupation with meaning, but avoids the idea that this meaning is propositional. It is all pretty much a mode of expressing emotions, so it is harder to attach sexual or gender-based or sociopolitical content to musical meanings.  If the "content" of music is emotion, then we can name it in words, insofar as we can name emotions in the first place, but we can't detach it from its forms. The emotions are taken to be those experienced by the composer and then expressed, communicated to the listener.  I have to confess that I bought into this idea as I was reading. It is sufficiently nuanced in its applications. There were a few times when he anticipates the melodramatic style of musical analysis, but you feel that he knows what he is doing and won't push the material beyond where it wants to go.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Business Plan: A Love Poem

People jog in tee-shirts, but men's dress shirts are made of a thinner material

they cling less to the body, hang looser

are easier to remove by unbuttoning

when soaked with sweat

I am thinking of the short-sleeved dress shirts worn by the Mormon missionaries

in warmer climates, not of long-sleeved shirts

of course nobody would go running in a white dress shirt like that

but I propose, my love, that you and I design, manufacture, and market a shirt

of light synthetic or blended material, like that used for other sportswear

modifying the hang of a dress shirt, but for athletic use

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Man Without Qualities

In this movie I arrive anonymously at a small town

hoping to be unnoticed

this is unlikely because I am the main character in the movie

my love interest is the waitress at the diner

her smile when our eyes meet telegraphs that to the audience

her sidekick is another woman, slightly older and heavier

with a brighter shade of lipstick, as though to compensate

for not being as conventionally attractive

in real life I would prefer her

but those are not the rules of this film

the music tells you how to feel at every turn

tense, wistful, buoyant, triumphant

not us, the characters in the film, but you, the audience

for we can not hear it inside the movie

I'm sure you've seen my movie, or one very like it

the plot is much what you'd expect

I am quietly confident, haunted by a murky past

but without distinguishing features

the camera follows me around

so the viewer identifies with me, because I am no one in particular

or with the waitress, as the case might be

the comfort here, for the audience, is in the tension and release

the familiarity of the form

the way this film, that I have dreamed of today on my walk downtown,

is similar to many others, not in the ways it is distinctive

Another thought on the melodramatic style

The function of the melodramatic style in musicology is this: it makes "pure" music into "program" music by attaching semantic content to musical syntax. We know that music in this particular system of tonality is a series of tensions and releases. So a delayed release or prolonged tension can be interpreted as a prolongation of sexual desire, etc...  We can construct a narrative out of how the particular way tension and release can be allegorized in any given instance. We even have characters: the musical themes themselves are like literary characters, etc...  Susan McClary is quite explicit about this. This is a way of attaching particular social meanings to forms instead of leaving them as purely formal. We re-semanticize music by attributing specific social or sexual values to formal operations like a dominant resolving into a tonic.

(Rhetorically, the straw man is a theory of pure music: the idea that music has no meaning at all. Nobody really believes that, though.  What is at stake is what kind of meaning it has, and how and why it acquires these meanings and for whom, and who gets to decide using what criteria.)  

So far, so good. The question remains is why this narrative has to be cast in melodramatic terms, why it has take the form of hyperbolic statements rather than being more matter-of-fact in tone. All this flirting with disaster and breathtaking reversals of fortune. The necessity for this is possibly this: a less emotional treatment would be too dry and formalist; the stakes would be too low and the end results less "dramatic" and compelling. So the rhetorical figure of hyperbole bears the weight of the persuasive power.  It also has the element of fun to it: it makes an entertaining narrative out of a series of syntactical operations! We feel something significant is happening.

But it is also the source of skepticism, in that hyperbole invites deflation.

Explaining your project

I explained my project twice yesterday, to my work buddy, Thomas, and and hour later to a writer for the news service that produces a daily set of stories about my university. I'm giving a talk in our faculty seminar in two weeks too. It is a useful thing to do, because you will inevitably tailor the explanation to the audience. In other words, you have an implicit pitch in your mind, but you will deliver it differently depending on your sense of an audience. I  Or you should. If you are talking to a different person then you will generate different ideas, based on their reactions. That is better than just memorizing a pitch and using the same words for every audience.  

So some the factors are

How much the person knows about your field, about your previous research.

How long you want to talk, how much detail, etc... Do you want to hammer home a main idea or give an extended outline of the separate parts?

How you think the audience perceives you. Do you have to win them over,  or do they already think you are interesting?  Are you preaching to the choir or do you expect resistance?

How do you want to be perceived? As an "expert," a gadfly?  Do you want to come off as humble or not so humble? How will you handle your defensiveness if challenged?

Do you want to gloss over the potential problems in your approach, or confess them openly so that someone can help you with them?

What are you looking for? Approval or confirmation? Clarification?  A job? Help in some concrete area?  A nice and informative news story about you in "KU today"?

Johann Sebastian Bach, Sonata II BWV 1003, Fuga

This has nothing to do with my project, but I thought you might enjoy it.

Non Narrative

This dream was very long but had no narrative structure or anything particularly memorable or narratable. It was mostly texture, with some anxiety motifs like disapproval of others, or a scene in which I was stepping out of the shower into a room full of people. I seemed more concerned about getting water on the floor than about being seen naked. In another scene I stepped outside of a house holding a Dixie cup, and was told that this was not done in this particular season. If I think more about it I can remember more episodes: going to a movie we had to pass through a room full of strange sci fi or espionage equipment of some kind. Through the whole night I seemed to staying at someone's house and trying to fit in some how, learn what the rules were.

Annals of forced comparisons and awkward transitions

The problem I see here is that the blues is "tonal" too.  All music is tonal except for "atonal" music. I guess some is based on scales and modes that aren't exactly the 18th century common practice, but come on.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The melodramatic style in musicology

Here is what I mean by the melodramatic style.  We know that analysis of harmony in and of itself is dry, and that music has a syntax but not a semantics of determinate meanings. We attribute emotions to syntactic or structural changes. So we have "catastrophe," "disaster," the "San Andreas fault." We have a "cruel cadence," "traumatic," "breathtaking," etc...  All the language is over the top.  And this is not an isolated example, but an entire style in musicology.

So the semantics of music is mostly a series of emotions. I think we can agree that music works on our emotions. So this method of tracing a series of chords and attributing a emotional weight to them does not seem wholly out of line. What seems exaggerated is, well, the exaggeration, and then the odd specificity of the overall narrative, the surety with which it is put forward. How do know whether something is a disaster and not a joke, for example? Who gets to decide? How do we know that anyone else will hear music in the same way?  The emotional language is doing all the rhetorical work here. Without that, we would just have a dry recital of what chord follows what other chord.  If the emotional language were toned down a bit, then the description wouldn't be all that compelling, would it?  It is emotionally compelling if we believe it, but if we are at all skeptical, then the melodrama makes it less convincing.

An exercise might be to have 10 musicologists in 10 rooms listen to this and invent their own narratives of what is happening here. Then compare those 10 reactions to 10 listeners who do not know how to analyze music like this.


As a short cut today I came up with a very simple formula:  "the meaning of music consists of the meaning we attribute to it." So it is meaning for someone.  And it is an act of attribution: someone decides how to name and define that meaning. If it means something, sincerely, for me, and I say what it is, then I am right. If a bunch of people react the same way to something, then they are right, whether they share common conventions of listening or for other reasons.

A lot of musical meanings seems simply tautological. What does slowness mean, for example? Or bounciness? We could represent "arbitrariness" by playing random notes. Or "incoherence" by starting a theme and not finishing it. "Banality" might be a too-simple theme played over and over, etc...  Understanding music is simply following along with it and finding whatever meanings we find there. I resent being strong-armed by a melodramatic narrative that may not correspond to how I would hear something if left to my own devices.    

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


I realized that there was this book, El flamenco a la luz de García Lorca, that I had not heard of. I experienced a moment of panic: what if this book did what I wanted to do? When I opened it up, I realized that my fears were unfounded. It is the typical book that talks about Lorca and flamenco in all the old ways and with a lot of the flamencology baggage that doesn't interest me.

The more I read the more I am convinced that I can do it better. I read a chapter on the blues in a book by a famous musicologist and said, nyah, I can do it better, simply because I don't think black people's bodies are more connected to their minds than white peoples. If I were writing about the blues I'd include jazz, for one thing.

I can just do it better. I'm not trying to be arrogant, it's just that my basic standard for myself is at a certain level. For me, it is a basic level of intellectual rigor.

A tic

I need to keep track of things nervously, like the number of hits I get on the blog. The numbers themselves are not important, it is more of a nervous habit of checking back, and I could easily substitute checking some other number, like the temperature outside. It is purely nervous, and has no function aside from that self-soothing. I also like to know what time it is, even when I don't have any time constraints. 

So I guess the productive thing to do with his non-productive habit is to limit it to a few things instead of doing it with 5 or 6, and realize that it has no real purpose. 

Cultural Work

I had a visceral reaction when I first started to hear people use the phrase "do cultural work," where the cultural work is a synonym some sort of immediate political pay off. As in the question: "What cultural work does Madonna's music do?" It takes something from what is already "culture" and makes its cultural work into something not even cultural, but simply political in a kind of one-dimensional way.

Themes in Dreams

In my recent dreams these motifs have predominated:

I admire the creative expression of a musician or dancer, often a black guy.

I seek approval, often unsuccessfully or dubiously, of someone for my own efforts, in music or dance or poetry. Usually this is a woman but these are not sexual dreams per se.

I am attempting to solve a problem in this regard. Whether to gain skill and confidence or legitimation / approval for my efforts. These dreams are hard work.

Bookself Poem

In this dream I am in a restaurant with some people. I am supposed to write a poem on the spot so I look at an empty bookshelf that happens to be there and decide to compose my poem in Spanish:

Oh estante, me inspiras una literatura infinita

vacío, me llenas de poemas sin fin

[Oh bookshelf, you inspire in me an infinite literature

empty, you fill me with poems without cease]

A woman is indignant because my poem isn't good enough. I remain unruffled, not because I agree my poem is all that bad, but just because it's not the kind of thing to worry about. It's just a few lines I threw off, off the top of my head.

Monday, September 24, 2018


In this dream Wayne P., (whom I had seen in the day in real life) tricked me into picking up part of his art work,  a mousetrap that then snapped onto my hand. I pummeled his shoulder with my fists, but then felt bad since I realized the snapping traps were part of the intended effect of the work. I continued to process this feeling for several more hours of dreaming.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Drummer: A Dream

I was at a concert hall of some kind on a college campus and peaked in a window or curtain to see a drummer playing extremely fast, but very musically, mostly on the ride cymbal. He was soloing or warming up, and there were odd "cuts" in his playing, as though I were watching a film of him playing rather than a live performance. He looked a bit like Jack DeJohnette, but with a beard and a bit skinnier. I rushed over a few feet to the box office to buy a ticket to the event where he would be playing. A male friend of mine whom I had just told about the drummer got his ticket first, and I asked for a ticket to the Kenny Burrell show. The ticket agent looked vaguely similar to the drummer and said, do you mean Kenny Burr? I wasn't sure but I said I just wanted the same show my friend was going to. In the dream he was my best friend, or a very close friend, though I could not identify him when I woke up.

The ticket agent cut up my credit card and I asked him why. He said he suspected fraud when the card was denied. I gave him my debit card instead, but I couldn't see the show because I woke up while still trying to buy the ticket. (The cat was attacking my feet.) So I guess the show was what I saw before I tried to buy the ticket.

Since I was the dreamer, that drum music was coming from me...