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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, December 14, 2018

Idioms and Proverbs

I'm giving my "Idioms and Proverbs" course in the Spring; I just found out this morning.  This will be a linguistics course rather than a literature one, so emphasis will fall on phraseology rather than "the short form" as a literary genre.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


I get to play in a piano recital today. The other students are mostly younger than me by about forty years.  I am playing Mompou's Música callada # 22 and a composition of my own. I think that my playing is far better than a year ago, when I probably wouldn't have played even in a kids' recital.  I was playing at a party the other evening and got a lot of compliments.  I am still not good in the sense of being able to play very difficult music, but I am good (not yet great) at executing easy music with sensitivity.  And what would you rather hear, someone playing a simple, beautiful piece beautifully or someone butchering a difficult piece? As I like to say, I have delusions of mediocrity.

Monday, December 10, 2018


I was listening to a cd of Keith Jarrett that I picked up at an estate sale for a buck. It is a solo album of standards, with a lot of sensitive dynamics and chord voicings.  I am sure I can hear it better because I now play piano better than a year ago. I can just hear things that I couldn't before, with more specificity and richness.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Concert

The concert was fun.  We sang arrangements of "Here we come a'caroling," "Deck the Halls," "Silent Night." A version of "Twinkle Twinkle."  "Stars" with a text by Sara Teasdale (Esenvalds). "Jessye's Carol." "Brightest and Best." Things like that.  And "Something like a star" by Randall Thompson.

Saturday, December 8, 2018


Here is my productivity tip.  Get up, have coffee and shower, whatever else. Do a few puzzles, and then open up a word document, a chapter of your book, and start working on it. Then stop.

See, you have been productive. It is 9 a.m. now. Days where this does not happen are not productive. Do this several times a week, then the week is a productive one, and the month.  

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Here is my idea: create a series of appendices to a book that, taken together, would be a book in itself. In other words, collect tangential subjects as you do an extended piece of research. Write a short essay or other genre (glossary) about each one.

Hornet's Haiku

Flamencology is a hornet's nest in many ways.  There aren't books in English about it that talk about it in musical terms straightforwardly. It is all filtered through sociological and anthropological discourse. The works in Spanish are more from the point of view of the aficionados themselves.  

There ought to be someone who writes about the lyrics of the cante as poetry. One guy I was reading recently said that they were haiku like.  Well, no, they are not, unless you just mean short.  I think I'm going to have to do it, at some point, since nobody else is going to.

There ought to be someone who writes about the major figures. Imagine if all the book on the shelf on jazz never really got around to talking about the music of Sonny Rollins or Mingus, Trane or Bird, Ella, or Sarah, or Billie.  You would think of that as odd, I think.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

How to make friends

My new colleague A. asked to borrow my books and actually read one of them all the way through and complimented me on it, saying that she laughed out loud at the funny parts.  Often, we don't read each others' books and articles the way we should. Just saying she knows how to make friends in an academic environment.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


In the Niedecker piece I decided I can also just play it as wordless song. So each section refers to a poem, with that as the title, and follows the rhythm of those words, but the piece is instrumental rather than vocal. In part because my singing is not yet where I want it to be.



Things are often counterintuitive for me.  I approach things from the opposite direction as I should. I could give examples from both music and visual arts as well as life in general. For example, I played the piano as though it were typing on a computer keyboard, hitting keys in a particular order, until a teacher pointed out that  I should relax my wrist instead.

9 measures

I was writing down a piece of music. I decided not to use Sibelius, and am now using a free program I downloaded on line that is much easier to use. Any way,  I noticed that the phrases are 9 measures long, with a structure A B A B.  Both A and B section have a structure of 5 + 4. It is kind of interesting that I didn't notice that until I started to notate it.  I never thought even of the bar lines at all. I won't know what my Niedecker piece is, either, until I compose it on paper.  I don't even think of quarter notes or eighth notes, though I do think very self-consciously about harmony.


My chair said that a graduate student had told her that I was the only professor who made him feel good about himself.  I certainly didn't tell the student he was great. My method right now is to be hard on the students' writing but very gentle in personal interactions. It seems to be working, and there is some pushback about cancelling my class.


In other good news there is an article by me here.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

I Meant It

My graduate seminar for next semester is not going to happen.  I didn't get enough students. My topic was going to be interartistic approaches to literature. My reaction, in front of some of my colleagues, was to say "Oh, well when I eventually do get to teach it then I will be smarter than I am now so that course will be even better." Of course, I actually did mean it.  I am still learning things every day so of course by the time I get to teach it I will know more about musicology and art history. My colleagues were laughing at me, of course.  Since they know me very well they have that right.  


I used to resent those approaches because I felt poetry was enough by itself. I still resent half-assed approaches to it, for the same reason. I had a phase where I felt you had to do something with poetry, translate it or set it to music or film, that the analytic approach was too narrow. That was because of my own learning process. I realized that I was taking for granted to ability to read the damned text. That cannot be taken for granted in the least. It turns out to be amazingly difficult to do interartistic approaches.      

Brief Autumnal Essay

So take that word, autumnal.  It is stately and sonorous. For an American, it is more British sounding, because we call autumn the fall. Except in fixed the phrase autumnal equinox, it is more connotative than denotative. It is used for its metaphorical associations rather than as a neutral designator.

Then take the word noodle. It is comic, both as the designator of pasta and as slang for the head, or to describe aimless playing on a musical instrument as a verb. So an autumnal noodle would be doubly comic, more so than a wet noodle or some other funny adjective + funny noun. Now we are not just perceiving the particular heft of each word, but also seeing there combinatory possibilities.

In the middle of a lyrical passage, a poet writes "a woman undergoing radiation treatment." There's nothing wrong with the phrase per se, but in the context it sticks out as being tonally wrong. There is nothing wrong with being prosaic, but it has to be for a purpose. This same poet, with prodigious talents for beautiful writing, ruins another poem by ending it with the line: "Isn't this the most mysterious of all possible worlds?" All the concrete particulars disappear in this abstraction. Can you imagine this poem: "petals on a wet, black bough / Isn't this marvelous?"  ??  

Achieving a pretty, lyrical language is something valuable in itself, maybe. In the sense that if a poet couldn't even do that... But usually we ought to think of things with more sophistication. So each word and phrase has its particular colors and textures.


Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son...  Here we have an emphasis on masculinity. Vir is Latin for male.  The repetition of the heavy sounding Latinate word and the use of two words for male relatives. The line is emphatic in rhythm.

Now that the fields are dank, and ways are mire,
Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
Help waste the sullen day, what may be gained
From the hard season gaining...   

What words stand out here? For me it is the words with a strong negative charge: dank, mire, waste, sullen, hard. Sullen is usually used for a person, so applying it to the day is brilliant. To help someone waste something is paradoxical. They say adjectives are not as strong as verbs and nouns, but we see that this is not true. We can note that the writing is beautiful but is not representing something that is beautiful in and of itself.  This is harder to do than simply writing purple prose about something easy on the eyes.

In the next part of the poem I hear an echo of Horace: "solvitur acris hiems vice veris et Favoni." The description of of the coming spring is actually as compelling as the harsh evocation of late fall:

                                             ...Time will run 
On smoother, till Favonius reinspire
The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire
The lily and rose, that neither sow'd nor spun. 

It's still brilliant, especially that last line, with the twin nouns and verbs.  Adding the rose to the biblical allusion is a nice touch. Notice that the language of the poem shifts according to the particular mood. It isn't just one kind of rhetoric applied indiscriminately in a uniform way.  

The next four lines describes a series of pleasurable experiences. Here I think the adjectives are still doing the heavy lifting:

What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice
Of Attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise
To hear the lute well touch'd, or artful voice
Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air?   

Every word has been picked up and tested for its weight and color. We still have the Horatian mood, mixed with an Italianate flavor. The diction here feels more stately and formal than "fields are dank." We have more French / Latin words, like "artful voice" / "immortal notes." The way Milton writes about it, his own style, reflects exactly the aesthetic that we would imagine being present in the lute playing and singing: it is an aesthetic of refined taste. I particularly like the verb "touched" with its tactile value, when he could have simply said "played."

I would have to look in the OED to see the exact way words like neat are being used here. I am responding as a contemporary reader without worrying too much about the 17th century usages. I still get an emotional feeling from neat, of something clean and pure, like nítido in Spanish, especially when it is associated here with light, choice, and Attic, and artful. The effect is not one produced by one adjective alone, but by the combined mood of all of them.

The last two lines (not a rhyming couplet since Milton is writing an Italianate sonnet) have a sententious feel:

He who of those delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.      

"He who..." is a traditional way of beginning a proverb. The emphasis fall on judiciousness. The ending is famously ambiguous. Some read it as "find time to interpose these pleasures often" and others as "refrain from interposing these pleasure too often." Tonally, and historically, it seems that we shouldn't do this too often, right? But the negation of a negation and the tricky syntax make it a bit indirect in expression. It is not a stern warning not to waste too much time in idle pursuits. In any case, they are interposed, alternating with more serious manly pursuits.  

So the entire sonnet we can perceive as heavy or light, smooth or shaggy, in parts. Breaking it down this way it might not seem even coherent, but that is simply the effect of focussing on its parts with the microscope. Actually it hangs together very neatly as a rhetorical performance.    


As a reader, too, I have the advantage over Milton's contemporaries, of having read Keats too. So I have parts of my experience as a reader that I can associate with Keats or Wordsworth, anachronistically, thinking about how they could have read Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton.  If something in an earlier poet reminds me of a later one, it is because of the ways in which they learned from these earlier poets. This is now part of my experience too: seeing the triangular relation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Toby de las Rivas

People are trying to persecute a poet because they think he is a "Fascist," and then, of course, a very long-winded guy comes along and says that's the wrong way to condemn him, because he is something a little bit worse than a Fascist:  

Anyway, my tl:dr on TMdlR is: I think the more useful description of his poetics is ‘post-liberal’ rather than ‘fascist’ – but this doesn’t necessarily stop us from declaring it an act of fascist appeasement, and, in its own way, as dangerous as fascism. (This is a very long, rather grim post, so I’ve put a musical interlude in the middle to give us all a break…)

If I were writing this many words I would be saying more, not just going on and on without saying anything. At the very end, he condemns this poet for writing about Unamuno!  Well guess what, writing about Unamuno sympathetically does not make you a Fascist.  

An Exercise

Here's an exercise I invented today.

Take the the chord change I vi ii V7.  It is a very familiar one used in numberless songs.

Play it again, but this time as I vi II7 V.  Now you've taken the relative minor, or vii, and imagined it as the ii of the the V. You have modulated to the dominant or V chord.

Now take that chord and treat is as I, and repeat the same sequence all the way through the circle of fifths.


C a d G7
C d D7 G

G e a D7
G e A7 D

D b e A7...


Now you will know relative minors, I vi ii V7, and ii V7 I, in every key, in a mere 96 measures or fewer depending on what harmonic rhythm you want.


Monday, November 26, 2018

Young People's Concerts

I could do a lot worse than learn from Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, where he lectures on music using the live New York Symphony Orchestra, to an audience of kids wearing suits and dresses in the 1960s. I listened to some on humor and music and another one on modes. They are not at all unsophisticated. They are a perfect example of communicating sophisticated concepts in a clear and dynamic way.  

Sunday, November 25, 2018

How to Analyze a Poem

Let's look at this Milton poem:

LAWRENCE, of virtuous father virtuous son,
Now that the fields are dank and ways are mire,
Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
Help waste a sullen day, what may be won
From the hard season gaining? Time will run
On smoother, till Favonius reinspire
The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire
The lily and rose, that neither sow'd nor spun.
What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,
Of Attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise
To hear the lute well touch'd, or artful voice
Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air?
He who of those delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

Now the way I would go about taking it apart would be first to explain why I like it. In other words, the starting point is that there is something notably good about it, and that that is what the analysis must account for. I think what it is at work here is a tone pitched exactly right between an informal and formal register. There is potential conviviality between the two men, but couched in a Horatian rhetoric. We see tonal shifts in things like "Favonius reinspire / The frozen earth," where Milton plays on the etymology of inspire (to breathe into) and then enjambs into an Anglo-Saxon phrase. Milton and Lawrence are Puritans, so it takes some justification to spend time aimlessly, wasting it, as he says. So the pleasures are not excessive ones, they are Attic, or simple in the Greek style; the feats is not a heavy, indulgent one, but in the "not unwise" style of Horace. A biblical allusion also works to justify the seeming idleness: "consider the lilies of the field..." The ending is famously ambiguous, where wisdom consists either of indulging in these pastimes frequently or infrequently. The litotes in the last phrase is a nice touch, rhetorically. It implies that someone might think of this behavior as unwise, but that it is really not so bad after all.

Milton's famously enjambed style works well in the sonnet, but is not typical of the sonnet form. He has odd groupings of lines, and makes effective use of the "jumps." "by the fire / Help waste a sullen day."  

Bare Minimum

I decided that I would learn more than the bare minimum of music theory to write this book. Partly, I want to demystify it for myself: a lot of it seems complicated, but a lot it is not all that difficult once you've learned a few basics. It builds on itself cumulatively, and things I barely knew a few months ago are now ingrained in me.  

If I learn more than I need to know, then the book will have more depth, even if I don't actively use even a tenth of it.  I refuse to be a dilettante.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


What does it mean to use theory or to be theoretical?

It should mean understanding the theory and being able to paraphrase aspects of it in your own words.

Normally, it involves adopting a certain vocabulary, or theoretical meta-language. Being able to talk like a denizen of that theoretical terrain.

It could mean theoretical application, or doing an "-ist" reading of something.

It can mean citation, or using the names of theorists to bolster a rhetorical position. People often cite theorists that then they don't really use. I love it when people cite various theorists whose positions are actually opposed to one another; or they produce an analysis that is the same as if they had not cited (mentioned) that set of theorists.

It could mean attending to details in a text that are relevant to a particular theory, or using only the parts of a theory that are pertinent to that text.

What it should mean: intelligently thinking through possible positions, in reference to theoretical positions adopted by others but without following any previous model exactly.


The Uruguayan poet Ida Vitale has won the Cervantes prize.  She is 95. I have a one or two of her books, so here's a poem:


Hace un rato
que en la encina cercana
protesta un grajo.
Mi vecina, la gata
blanquinegra e inaudible,
asoma en la ventana.
Mira el árbol
y encerrada imagina
la aventura riesgosa.
Mira al grajo y me mira.
No sabe a quién apoyo.
Para alguien que no existe
un raro trío hacemos
en tres lenguas distintas,
dos silencios y el ruido
del grajo inaccesible.

Click on the title of the poem if you want to read it in English. It is wonderfully complex: the speaker of the poem and her female cat are looking out the window at a bird (a rook) in a tree. The cat is imagining going after the bird, and looks at the speaker as though to be asked to be let out for the hunt. Then the speaker posits an imaginary spectator ("someone who doesn't exist") in order to frame the entire scene.

I gave this to a graduate class once and a student had a kind of blasé reaction to this. Of course you can't make someone be wowed by what has impressed you, but that moment stands out as a teaching disappointment.  It is true that the effects are on the subtle side.


I could try to translate her poems myself. I want to think about the way translating and song setting are not very similar ways of transforming or adapting the poem. The translator has several options, but within a certain semantic constraint:

It's been a while now
that in the nearby oak
a rook has been protesting.

That's what I came up with with a few seconds thought without looking at the other translation, and the translator I'm linking to has:

For a while now
a rook has been protesting
in the nearby oak.

There are other possibilities, but they will overlap with these considerably unless they move in the direction of much freer translation:

That damned crow
won't stop screeching
in the holm oak tree.
My neighbor, my zebra-striped
soundless cat
stalks it on the sill.
She looks at the tree
weighing the risks
from captivity.
She looks at the bird
and back at me
testing my loyalty.
For the imaginary spectator
we form a strange trio
in three different languages:
two mutes and the clamor
of the unreachable black bird.

In fact, I like that better! But I can't come up with a free version of "she looks at the tree" and things like that.  

The songwriter can choose any possible melody in any available musical style or genre, and it is unlikely that if you put 10 composers in 10 rooms you'd get anything similar among any of them, even if they professed similar philosophies of song setting. There is no "literal" version from which to depart.


Birtwistle has 9 Niedecker settings. That's all I've found so far. I also see a reference to a Jerry Hui who has done some. I won't be listening to many those until I get my own work done. I haven't heard of him before now, and it's funny that it's a Brit who's approached this poetry.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Little Drops of Rest

Here are the first three settings, minus vocal parts. I have one more poem to set to music, and then I have to compose the interludes between them. 

The songs have to set a single mood, but have some varied movement in melody. I repeat some chords in the ii-V-I cadences, but I think I'm getting the effects I'm looking for.  

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Re-wiring the Brain

Learning a skill, or learning a new language, or a new system of writing, or learning to compose music, feels like re-wiring the brain. It is not the acquisition of information, or learning new facts about things, but more like learning to think in certain way. 

Thinking, abstract thinking in this sense, is itself a re-wiring of the brain. I often conclude of people in my field that they aren't very good thinkers, in that they aren't good at developing new ideas, thinking through connections between things--all the things that make someone "smart."  

When I saw that these processes of learning feel a certain way, I am being very precise about my experience. It is intensely pleasurable to sit down and work out a melodic idea and connect it to others, figure out whether a sequence of chords sounds good or not, satisfies my ear. Then how does it balance with the last section? 

If I can learn something every day then I am an intensely happy person. For example, the other day I learned the term "Mickey Mousing." First I saw it in wikipedia and then in one of Bernstein's lectures on humor and music. I thought that was a brilliant concept. I think I am guilty of it when I set the phrase "ice cakes float downstream" on a series of five descending notes. Hopefully nobody will notice.  

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Why Niedecker?

I don't know quite why I chose Lorine Niedecker to set to music.  Her book was on my desk... But I must have been the one who put it there, and for some purpose. To set something to music, I must feel there is nothing that I would change about the lyric, that everything in it is something that I can stand behind, in some sense. It seems like an act of conferring value on a text, setting it apart from others.

I chose the poems almost at random, by opening the book to a random page until I found something that suited my needs. Not every poem was suitable but it wasn't hard to find good ones.

I like the idea of combining poems that have no connection to one another. That creates a new work of art through new juxtapositions.

I am trying to put myself in the place of a composer, so that as I continue to write my book on music and Lorca, I have some insight. I don't say that out of arrogance, but precisely out of humility. I don't know what that process is at all until I try it. My claim, which I have no way of demonstrating, is that the creative process of the mediocre hobbyist composer is not wholly dissimilar to that of good ones.

Of course, I could set Lorca himself, and I have done that, but I wanted this project to be something independent of the book.

So Niedecker is one of the poets who exemplifies my Platonic ideal of lyric poetry in my own idiom. Ceravolo would be another.  

Coltrane changes

So I'm exploring these chord changes.  The idea is to go down tonal centers by major thirds. So play a  "ii V I" in A, then in F, then in Db.  Down another third gets you to A again, so it's cyclical. Typically, played very fast, as in "Giant Steps."  My idea is to slow it down and make that the structure itself, take just one part of it as the intro to a piece with a different set of chord changes. Here I go

G- / C7 / F // Eb- / D7 / Db...   Then my setting of two Niedecker poems---eventually to be 4. As usual, please excuse the singing and the various stumbles.  I didn't have time to record it over and over until it was free from those.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Perfect Lyric

My aesthetic is that of the perfect, self-contained lyric. Not in the "bad poetry," of course.  And it's something I've probably never achieved in poems trying to be good, either. I know many people advocate for the messy aesthetic, but I like the sharp image in the poetic form that seems to incarnate that image.

Sunday's motor-cars
jar the house.
When I'm away on work-days
hear the rose-breast.
Love the night, love the night
and if on waking it rains:
little drops of rest.


That will be the fourth poem in the Niedecker suite in Db.  I will have five piano segments framing the four songs, an intro, a conclusion, and three interludes.


Yet more

I wrote a tune for the second Niedecker.  I think it will be a suite of 3 or 4 songs. I need one a little longer now:

They've lost their leaves
the maples along the river
but the weeping willow still
        hangs green

and the old cracked boat-hulk
         grows weeds

year after year

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


So the first thing is the concept of the "artistic vision." You need to think of what the piece is going to sound like. For Mompou, Música callada X, I can think of it as swimming through molasses, or as a child's music box. I have to have an overall interpretation, and also a way of directing each phrase toward that aim. People say that Western classical notation doesn't work for jazz. Fair enough, but the notation only gets you so far in classical music. You have to know how you want it to sound.

 Being a literary guy, I use words to describe what I want the music to sound like.  I may not achieve that, but if I don't have a conception of what it is supposed to be, then what will I achieve?  

So I need to listen to what it sounds like. I need to record myself but also listen each time I play. My choir director says, "Listen harder than you sing." Every musician knows that listening is more important than producing the sound.

The piano has dynamics. Piano means soft, so the dynamics really means being able to play as soft as possible (Feldman).  Loudness is pretty easy. Pianissimo playing is not weak, it still has an assertiveness to it. My concept of voicing was what notes to play (in jazz), but in classical playing it is what note within the chord to bring out. Obviously the melody note on top, usually.

Then phrasing. Bringing out the linear dimension and the structural elements.  

Spelling bee

I do the "spelling bee" puzzle in the New York Times, virtually every day.  [In other words, every frizzing day, given my notorious puzzle addiction.] You have seven letters, and one that must be present in every word.  Words must have at least four letters. There is one word (or more) that is the "pangram," the word with all seven letters, for that day's puzzle.

"S" is never a letter, so you can never form extra words by adding and "s" to make a plural or a third person singular verb. Also, they never had "e" and "d" in the same puzzle, so that you can't make extra words with past participles with that morpheme.

Each day, I try to reach the "genius" level, and also get the "pangram."
I began to play and write music without knowing that it was going to lead to a book on Lorca & music. I even wrote a few Lorca settings myself, but without thinking about writing a book about that.

Now when I set words to music I am studying my subject matter (song settings of Lorca) by learning to do it myself.

Another Niedecker

I sit in my own house
follow winter break-up
thru window glass.
Ice cakes
glide downstream
the wild swans
of our day.

She is so good it puts me to shame for calling myself a poet. The challenge here in musical setting is finding longer melodic lines when the phrases are so short. I'm seeing four phrases.  I need an instrumental interlude between the two halves of the poem. The vowel sounds make it very singable, especially the sounds of "ice cakes / glide downstream."  The ending fades away rather than being resolute or emphatic. These are not Yeats's wild swans.



The division between inside and out: the speaker is in the security (comfort, safety) or her own house, looking out the window. "Winter break-up" sounds negative at first, like the break-up of a relationship, but it is winter itself breaking up, exemplified by the frozen-over river ice breaking up into smaller fragments, "cake." {Solvitur acris hiems] Gliding downstream is a smooth movement; they are white so they remind her of swans, perhaps of Yeats's poem. In "our day," our times, we are content with more humble images of beauty, not the typical swans of symbolist poetry. So emotionally the poem is in tension, with the various elements: security, coldness thawing out, cakes [something nice to eat in other contexts], beauty, and humility. You wouldn't set it to music as a triumphant anthem or as a dirge, but as a nuanced exploration of these emotional tensions.

Second update:  "ice cakes float down stream" is four long vowels in a row. Exploit parallelisms with winter / window.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Romancero gitano by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

There's an Italian composer who did a lot of Hollywood movies too. Anyway, he has a work called "Romancero gitano," some choral settings of songs by Lorca, with guitar accompaniment.  You would think that he would have used this title for settings of poems from Lorca's book of the same name. But no.

They are from a different Lorca book, Poema del cante condo. It's a little odd. It would be like setting Frost's poems from North of Boston and calling your work A Boy's Will. Why would you do that?  It's not explicable as a mistake, even. If you're working a long time on some poems, you know what they are, what book they are from. I'll let you know if I find out why he decided to give it that title.

I'm not crazy about the work anyway, and it probably won't make it into my book, except as a brief mention.





Liu Zongyuan

The visual analogue to the Liu Zongyuan poem is the typical Chinese landscape with looming mountains and a very small boat with a fisherman. The old man is a sage or hermit, who has been in government service but now has either retired or been banished to an isolated place, as the poet himself was.  There are, in fact, paintings with this poem written on them. And I would guess that this motif was in paintings even before the poem was written. The poem reads as an ekphrasis, either as a description of paintings already existing or as instructions for painting such paintings. We must have a contrast between the immensity of nature and smallness of the figure in the foreground.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Song setting

I realize now how I approach song setting.  The melody and rhythm have to follow the contours of the prosody. I approach it as a student of the poem's rhythms.  The poem has to speak through the musical expression. I've had no luck at writing words to melodies I've already written.

You are my friend

Here is my version of the Niedecker poem.  Excuse the singing voice!  I wasn't warmed up very well. 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Some other versions

A thousand mountains without a bird.
Ten thousand miles with no trace of man.
A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat.
Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river.

Three thousand peaks cut off the flight of birds
On all the trails, human tracks are gone.
A single boat--coat--hat-an old man!
Alone fishing chill river snow.

You can see why I prefer Binner's version for musical setting... and for other reasons too.  

Another fishing poem

A hundred mountains and no bird,
A thousand paths without a footprint;
A little boat, a bamboo cloak,
An old man fishing in the cold river-snow.

I also set this to music a while back, a translation by Witter Bynner of a Chinese poem; it goes well with the Niedecker poem that I just set to music in my favorite key of Db Major. 

I gave the Niedecker poem melancholy cast, with a bit of a Duke Ellington vibe.    

Not every poem is meta-

Not every poem is metapoetry. I think this is a pedagogical trap, and once you teach inexperienced reader to view every poem like that, then the device loses its charm. Especially with a poem like Niedecker's (see below), you fail if you fail to read the poem on its literal level first.

Friday, November 9, 2018


"You are my friend-- / you bring me peaches / and the high bush cranberry / you carry / my fishpole // you water my worms / you patch my boot / with your mending kit / nothing in it / but my hand."

Here's a nice poem. I want to set it to music so first I must think it through a bit. It starts off with a kind of ordinary line. Everything else in the poem explains that friendship.  Gifts of fruit first. I didn't know before 10 seconds ago that cranberry bushes were tall, but I've just found out they grow to be 10-15'.  We don't expect that line to be so long, but the details get more specific as we go along. The alliteration of water and worms is a nice touch of humor there. I don't fish but I guess you keep the bait wet so they are still alive when you put them on the hook.  

There is a shift to a faster rhythm.  Now the gifts are of service, not edible objects. A narrative emerges of the images: the speaker, if she is a woman, is going fishing with another person (possibly male?).  He is carrying to gear, including hers, then doing more specific things. There is a slight hiccup syntactically in the last two lines: "nothing in it" would refer to the kit, but that doesn't make sense, so it must be the boot. Now the hand, not the foot is in there: we get the image of her holding the boot steady by putting her hand in it while he is putting a patch onto it.  "Nothing in it but my foot" wouldn't be a satisfying conclusion.

That specificity has an emotional charge to it. It is a love poem, but expresses love as gratitude for friendship, small acts of comradeship by which he shows his affection for her. The music has to express the tone of that old song "P.S. I love you" or something like that. It has got to expand and contract in the length of phrases and be somewhat understated, not too Norman Rockwell.

PS:  I just saw an online lecture / discussion of the poem where the professor and the class do not consider the possibility that the "it" can be the boot itself. They go into this long discussion of meta poetry and masturbation.  How can the "it' be the mending kit? Did all its contents (thread, needles, patches, glue...) spill out of it? Why would her hand be in it if he is the mender?    

Poem with a surprise

I saw my dead friend at the store

It wasn’t him though

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Minor Triumph

A minor triumph is when a colleague passes my office door and says, Oh, classical instead of jazz? And I don't even tell them that what they are hearing is my recording of myself playing piano.

Some Recent References

As Jonathan Mayhew protests 

Lorca scholar Jonathan Mayhew

And one not so recent...

Dream of a Medieval Poem

There was a medieval Spanish poem of startling clarity and beauty. It embodied perfectly its own period as well as our own contemporary ecological sensibility. I can't remember any words or images from the poem, but it occupied a single page and was written in three-line stanzas. It had been discovered by a graduate student, or at least she had brought it to our attention. A powerful person in my department, who had been feuding with this student, was trying to argue that this double interpretation was anachronistic. To me, though, it was obvious that the student was right.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

7 reasons why

I identified about 7 reasons why Lorca is set to music a lot. Then I write them down, and started to work on paragraphs for each of these reasons. I wrote a lot that day. The material almost organized itself. All of a sudden I have 2000 words in that chapter instead of 800.

If you can write a good list of things, that is always good. But the thing to do is to make an argument out of that list.

Modal Short Cuts

Assuming I know major and minor scales, I need to learn five other modes.

Mixolydian and Lydian are have a major third, so those I can associate with major scale.

Mixolydian is simply the scale of the dominant 5th, so I already know it. I'd put a Bb instead of B in C major.

Lydian has an augmented fourth, with the rest of the notes like the major scale.

The other three modes are minor in tonality.

Dorian is a minor scale, but without the flatted sixth. I can associate it with the ii of a ii-V-I progression, then.

Phrygian is a minor scale with the addition of a flat 2.

So those two modes each differ only one note from the minor scale.

Locrian has the flat second of the Phrgian, a minor third, a diminished fifth, and flat 6 and 7. So take a Phrygian and flat the fifth. Or flat every note except the fourth.

So, from the circle of fifths, G and F yield modes only one note different from C major.
[G and F major have one accidental in their key signature]

D Dorian yields a mode two notes different (flat 3 and 7)
[D major has two sharps]

A minor (Aeolian) has three notes different (flat 3, 7, 6)
[A major has 3 sharps]

E Phrygian has four notes different (flat 3, 7, 6, 2)
[E major has four sharps]

B Locrian has five notes different (flat 3, 7, 6, 2, 5).
[B major has five sharps].

Monday, November 5, 2018


My friend, when she was 11 years old, would write out an hourly schedule of what she would do each day during the summer months. This is unusual for a child, but shows a very keen insight. I'm starting to do that now for every day including weekend, simply on my calendar app on my phone which synchs with my computer.

What this does is to avoid the "where has the day gone" syndrome. This happens to a lot academics in the summer, on weekends and non-teaching days, on sabbaticals and other leaves. The idea is not to avoid "wasting time," a rather lame concept. I can put binge-watching netflix or anything else on the schedule. As long as it fits there.

Today I got up at 7:30. Had coffee and did puzzles until 8:30. I do kenken and an anagram game from the New York times (had done Monday crossword last night.) I'm working until lunch at 11, including these blog posts. I've written 600 words so far on a chapter, and answered some emails. I will walk for an hour after lunch, then play piano, then work. Pick up some things at the store, and then I have a party at 6 which will probably last till 9.  I don't have to schedule anything from 9-11, which is bedtime.  

You're Doing it Wrong

That's been a consistent theme here on the blog lately.  I'm bewildered a lot by obvious shortcomings in scholarship I'm reading in order to write this book, and in book proposals I'm reading for presses fairly frequently. The right way of doing things seems self-evident to me.  Surely it is not easy or someone else would have figured it out.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


“Falla leaves his mark not only on Lorca’s landscapes and cityscapes, but also on melodic and non-melodic aspects of deep song celebrated in his poem. Four poems concern the guitar, exalted by Falla for its permanent contribution to European music. In Lorca’s ‘La guitarra,” onomatopoeia imitates the instrument as Falla did with piano and strings of the traditional orchestra” (Orringer 203; emphasis added). 

Lorca writes poems about the guitar because of Falla's influence?  Isn't the guitar simply the instrument used in the music FGL was celebrating, the cante jondo?  Would Lorca need to think about violins imitating guitars to use onomatopoeia in his poetry?  

What is lacking in these analogies is parsimony. Go for the most obvious explanations first. Only then, if they don't work, do you complicate things. I swear he does something like this almost on every page.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

I've actually had the experience of not wanting to read something too closely, in fear that I would get too critical.  When reading tenure evaluations and the like, or for book reviews. Sometimes I smell blood in the water and I know that I could be even more critical than I am, if I were too look at every claim and assertion with more scrutiny.  With the Orringer book I've noticed a tendency toward loose analogies that seem to have assertive content but are really just rhetorical flourishes with very little that could be verified (or falsified for that matter).  I kind of hoped the book would be bit better. It does have some strong points as well, but I'm sure I could find something to query every two pages or so.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Correct me if I'm wrong

Play a major scale from the bottom up all the way through.

Ok. How many notes did you play? If you are like me, then you would play 8, not 7.

Because a scale is 7 intervals, not 7 notes. So, for example, the interval of a half step between the major 7th and the octave is part of the melodic contour and sound of that scale, just as much any of the other six intervals. So to get those seven intervals you need 8 notes.  (As against the view that the scale simply starts over again at the octave.)


Surely this is wrong, in a book on Lorca and Falla I am reading:

"The Phrygian, according to Falla's personal jottings, contains the notes E-F#-G-A-C#-D. The Lydian includes F-G-A-Bb-C-E. The Doric [sic] holds D-E-F-B-C-E."

First of all, why are there only six notes in these modes? Secondly, isn't Phrygian EDFGABCDE?  And the Lydian FGABCDEF?  The Dorian DEFGABCD? I know there's a Phrygian dominant, but it still has the flat second.  What he has for Lydian is an F major scale missing the sixth.

I don't know why he defines an interval by saying, "a seventh signifies a difference of seven notes..." So would a second be a difference of two notes?  Actually it would be one note different, right?

I don't think "modulation" is "the transposition of a melody from one key to another." I'm not trying to be super-pedantic here. The modal transcription could be a typo. I'm just trying to figure out whether to trust the source. It's hard to get things accurately, even in the definition of a simple term like modulation, which is the way that music piece shifts harmonically into another key, not the transposition of a melody.

Flattening a note is not taking it down "half an interval," but taking it down a half-step, or a very specific interval.

Project bias

A new term for the glossary:  project bias is the bias in favor of things within the purview of what one happens to be studying.  So in a book on Cervantes and Lorca, it would be a bias against Quevedo or some other influences on L, or a tendency to overstate connections. The opposite of project bias is interpretative caution, or the idea that analogies and connections require strong evidence.

You should treat your own project with skepticism.


I'm reading a book that refers to Lorca's books of poems as "anthologies." Surely this is wrong. In English, anthology must refer to a selection from several poets, not one. (The book is written in English.). In Spanish, you can use antología for the work of a single poet, but in that case it must be poems selected from more than one book (a "selected poems."). Romancero gitano is not an "anthology" but a unitary collection, a poemario or book of poems.  The book is otherwise excellent in numerous ways, so that makes it all the more puzzling. I've never seen that in my life.  

A DREAM of capital letters

In my dream I was writing poems, for my colleagues to finish or flesh out, in the form of short stanzas of all capital letters. I was staying at a house with them and overheard an argument between them that I didn't really want to hear, with sordid personal details that I won't repeat here.  The poems would be kind of like this:




Thursday, November 1, 2018

Some other academic snow clones

The X of Y.

Such as:

The Poetics of Space.

The Tao of Intersexuality.  

Then Zen of Bookmaking.

[Where the first part of the title is vague all-purpose noun (in this context at least) and the second part is the actual subject matter.]

X-ing the Y: [subtitle which is the real title of the book]

Like: Greasing the Pig: Alimentary Discourses in Seventeenth Century France. [made up example]

What are some other formulas like this?

The Ludlum Factor.  The first word title is a surname, the second word is an abstract noun. (Made famous by the titles of Robert Ludlum's books.).


Leonard Bernstein in his young persons' concert about humor in music says that musical humor is entirely self-referential: it can only make a joke about music itself, not something exterior to music.

I will argue that there can be a music joke about the text of the song, or a joke that works from the disjunction between music and words.  We''ll see.

The Semantic Emptiness of Music

I was listening in my car to Mompou's music for a ballet based on Lorca's Perlimplín. I was thinking, then, that I couldn't identify, from the music alone, where I was located in the plot of the play at any given time. Yes, the music is kinetic, I could imagine it as a ballet, but I probably wouldn't be able to guess what the various parts of it represented, even if I had the script in front of me and was trying to follow along.  

Then I thought of Ellington's suite of music based on Shakespeare, Such Sweet Thunder. I've listened to these pieces many times, of course, but I've never associated them with the plays that they are inspired by. I couldn't tell you why the piece about Cleopatra is "about" her. I'm sure someone could find correspondences, but I could probably find correspondences between a piece and some other character that the piece is not about.  

It's not that music is not meaningful, in two senses of the word: it has meanings and it is consequential. But these meanings end up not being semantic, in the sense of being paraphrasable as semantic content. We know this because we have to be told what those meanings are. They are the product of an explanatory apparatus, or of the literary content of the verbal text (when there is one).


There are semiotic codes, or signs, in music. We can think of some.  A trumpet fanfare announces the entrance of the king in a play. A jazz saxophone line ascends along with the movie camera as it reveals the femme fatale from the shoes up. French horns evoke a hunting scene. We might say that some flamenco chords on a guitar, used in a film, put us in Spain, or think of the way on old movies they would play a pentatonic riff to put us in Japan.  

Mostly, though, these signs evoke moods or ambiences. Ellington was a fairly "programatic" composer in wanting to suggest specific things, as he himself said I think, but I don't find his Far East Suite to be particularly "orientalist." That is a good thing too.        



What is hilarious about that Clayton E. letter is how he defends his poetry - by quoting horrifically, obviously, staggeringly inept examples of it. The lack of self-awareness is astonishing. After one quote, he say, "it may not be great poetry, but..."  Well, no, it isn't.  The opening gambit of placing all poetry above all criticism is also priceless, since Perloff is able to turn around and ask, well, what defines something as poetry?


I spend a lot of time in reverie. It doesn't seem to be work, like in school when you aren't paying attention to what you are supposed to be doing, as happened to me a lot. Yet reverie, or "daydreaming," is probably the most productive and creative state one can be in. It has a kind of stigma to it, but really I think most people with any kind of creativity at all must do it a lot. It isn't the kind of purposeful working through of ideas that I also do (when I am just sitting there and don't seem to be working at all), but a pleasant, drifting of the thoughts where the mind can go anywhere it wants to.  That is the only way to come up with ideas, right?  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

More turns

It turns out I forgot the "affective turn," as Olga reminds me, and the "performative turn" and "semantic turn" (in design) as well. Some of these turns might turn out to be less paradigm-shifting than others. What interests me is the snowclone feature of them, how they proliferate through that particular syntactic construction. It is extraordinarily productive.  Perhaps the only phrase more productive in academic life over the last few decades is "queering the x."

A goodbye to background music

I feel I don't need music in the background any more.  I mostly now listen to music, rather than having it on in the background without attending to it actively. Even when listening actively to music the mind can wander off and stop hearing it, but there is no need to encourage the habit.


I dreamed I was trying to play Debussy and failing at it. I couldn't read the notes very well on the page and for some reason I was required to play it on two keyboards at once.

The Turns

We have the cultural turn, the pictorial (visual) turn, the linguistic turn, the spatial turn, the temporal turn, the historical turn, what else?

I am not the first to use the term "literary turn," I see, though I use it differently than others have.  

This is apparently an attractive notion, an attractive "snow clone." :"the x turn in y," where x is an adjective and y is the name of a field or set of fields. The idea that a field or discipline or a huge cross section of disciplines [all the social sciences or humanities] experiences a shift by turning in a particular direction. Hey, everything is language now!  We should historicize everything. Let's look at things culturally, or spatially, or visually, now. In some sense, all the turns cancel one another out, or somewhat duplicate one another at times. We could argue that a lot of them have been hugely productive. Without turns, we would be stuck in the the same paradigms.  

There could be a poetic turn, and I just found something on jstor with that title. There hasn't been a musical turn yet, as far as I can tell. In other words, music is never the paradigm that we can apply to other disciplines.  What about an "aural turn" or "sonic turn"?  

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Rich & Eshleman & Mompou

Here's a really readable review of Adrienne Rich's career. I recently, lost in jstor land, started reading everything M. Perloff had written that hadn't got into her books. I found a long review of the "corn porn lyric" from the 1970s. At the end of a 40 page omnibus review she saves Rich from the bonfire... one of the only poets that could write an erotic lyric without corniness at that time. Stylistically, Rich is indebted to Lowell, whom Perloff had studied in her second book, The Poetic Art of RL. I'm not a big fan of Rich overall, but her work stands up better than a lot of things.


The best known translator of Vallejo, CE, responds to Perloff's skewering of his book in the "corn porn" essay, trying to put her down as a mere critic. Perloff comes back brilliantly, saying, yes, poets rank higher than critics, but what makes your work poetry in the first place?


A found an interview with Mompou on youtube. It's in Spanish with no subtitles. Anyway, he talks about not liking Beethoven.  He said that every composer he knew had strong and irrational dislikes of great composers, and that that was the composer's privilege, in a way. He wasn't saying other people had to share his view, just that Beethoven was the opposite of his own aesthetic. I think I would distrust a creator who liked everything equally or who didn't have some animus against some musical path thought to be the "wrong one." Mompou says that his music is the least "composed" of anyone's.  He doesn't like to call himself a composer because his music is "la menos compuesta."    

Monday, October 29, 2018

Starting off narrow

Specialization gets a bad rap. But think of someone whose opinion you really respect on a particular subject.  That person is likely to be a specialist. That person's "general" knowledge is also likely to be pretty good, as good as that of the so-caled "generalist," maybe. Let's say the foremost expert on Mahler knows as much about Mozart as the person who knows a little about everything in music but is not the foremost expert on anything in particular. My girlfriend is the foremost tourist guide-book writer on Japan, and she also knows a lot about places that aren't Japan, more than the casual traveller who doesn't even know one place well.  

It is normal to start out narrowly.  I was a specialist on one genre, in one country and one period of time, and knew about one poet more than any other. That is what I have seen in Assistant Professors in my department over the years too. Then I branched out to other poets, went back in time to the modernist period from the postwar, still doing one genre and one nation. I knew about other things, but I was only authoritative about that. Then I decided to do the 1st Lorca book, and drew on previously untapped parts of the scholarly base. Still highly specialized, but now it doesn't look so bad, does it? A full professor is still a specialist, just broader and deeper. By developing depth on any topic, you also develop breadth, branching out to learn the other things you need in order to understand your topic. Personally, I see the breadth as a normal part of intellectual curiosity about things that aren't your speciality, and the depth as your mastery of your domain.    

The ABCs

My hypothesis: failure often comes from an inattention to things on the basic level, not from an inability to reach too high. So:

failing to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, or between denotation and connotation. Reading in a literal-minded, unimaginative way, or else thinking everything is allegorical, and not seeing what's literally in front of their faces.

not knowing the basics of prosody or form. Students readings a sestina and saying it's "very repetitive." (Jaime Gil de Biedma's "Apología y petición"). Never have I had a grad student know what a sestina is when faced with that poem.

ignoring basics like the "intentional fallacy."

not knowing what a thesis is, how to develop one.  Not developing an argument in a paper, or knowing that a paper has to have an argument. Basic organizational flaws like telling you "this paper will argue that" at the 2/3 mark of the paper. Having a bad title or none at all.  

This is high-school stuff, essentially, or freshman English. Now we also recognize the paper that does everything right at the high school level, but doesn't rise high enough for grad work or professional publishing. The point of all the basic stuff is to be able to present the intellectual content well, but I don't know how to teach someone how to have intellectual content in the first place. It turns out to be difficult for most people to generate interesting ideas about literature.  

Problem solving and rehearsal

There are two main kinds of practicing I do: problem solving and rehearsal.

The first is working through things I cannot yet play and learning to play them.  One problem is that I do not know what the notes are yet, that I have figured out, on the page, what they are in the literal sense. A second problem is that I cannot get my fingers to play those notes. I have small hands to reach is an issue for me.  

Rehearsing is playing something I can already play, as beautifully as I can. That should be done with intention each time, with thought, never just running through the notes just to refresh your memory.  When I do that, I have to stop myself.  Rehearsal can be experimental... what would be piece sound like a little slower, with a slightly different feel to it, or some other way? Or it can be oriented toward determining one particular interpretation. The interpretation blossoms as I rehearse. It expands or deepens. It can grow stale through excessive repetition. I am not good enough yet to be wholly consistent. Instead, I let the interpretation vary a good deal from day to day, even when moving in a single overall direction. The idea would be to have a single interpretation that only varies a slight bit, but never getting stale either. I am playing the C minor Prelude by Chopin now, which would be easy to play stalely, since it is overplayed, but to me it is fresh (since I'm still at the problem solving stage with it).  

Since I am new to the process, having learned these things just now (this is just what I understand so far), the growth or blossoming in my understanding of the process itself is amazing to me. It is like a strange gift that I don't quite understand yet. It's a bit like discovering a hidden room in a house you have lived in your whole life.  

Recently I was able to hear a phrase in my head before I played and then play it, listening to whether it was the same phrase that I wanted to hear. I'm sure all very good musicians already do that!            

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


I've decided to have a glossary of terms at the end of the book. Each term is associated with a definition that is an idea. For example:

Fragmentation and recombination. The process of breaking off pieces of a text, or taking a text out of its original context, and then combining it with other fragments.  See also recontextualization, defamiliarization. 

The Literary Turn.

Popularization. ...

I may need a glossary of musical terms too. We get to speak Italian when talking about music (decrescendo instead of just saying "getting softer."). Poor Italians, they have to talk about music by using their own language; that's not very fun.

The Value Added Theory and Metanoetic Prolepsis

This comes from translation, but applies equally well (or better) to musical settings.  I call it the value added theory.

We see translation, often, as trying (and inevitably failing) to create the perfect replica of the poem in a different language. Why inevitably failing? Because the "replica" model is an impossible one. No two texts are replicas of each other in two different languages. Notice, also, that the original text is accorded the status of being perfect, and so every difference will be debited to the account of the translation. This is manifestly unfair. Even if the original is in fact "better" in many ways than the translation, we tend to grant a kind of metaphysical status to it that makes the differences all the more evident.

Borges was one of the first to point out that the translation is judged inferior because of this metaphysical difference, not because all originals are empirically better than every possible version of them. Empirically, a translation can surpass the original.

The value added theory or "meeting of great minds" theory goes beyond this, to say that the translation can be better than the original because we have a great literary mind working with material by another great literary mind, we have something extraordinary going on: the encounter itself.  

The caveat is that the brilliant poet-translator might not bring anything of all that interest to the encounter.  For example, suppose for the sake of argument Ashbery's Rimbaud is about as good as that of a very good translator like Mary Ann Caws. We can't make the argument that there is a "meeting of the minds."

I think that we think of this instinctively when we want to hear a great version of "All the Things You Are," if we already love the song, or of Chopin's Preludes, so it works for musical "interpretation." Or if we think it's wonderful to hear Bird, Dizzy, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Mingus play all together and feed off each other. The combination is more than just the sum of these five ingredients.

Now there is also the "goose-bump factor." Just thinking of that combination might give you goose bumps, in excess of the actual results, and thus alter your perception. That might effect the Ashbery example too: we might get goose bumps of excitement reading the translation, knowing who Ashbery is, that we wouldn't get if it if we were told it was "translated by Joe Schmoe."  

With a musical setting, we have a poem that we already admire, say by Lorca (por ejemplo).  We still have the poem itself, and we have another work of art, the song, that represents a creative encounter with the poem. We might think of that as a set of creative instructions for performing the poem. It would be like the meeting of great minds you would have when a great director directs a great playwright. In fact, the great play can only be great as theater in a great mise en scène. Of course, you need a singer as well as a composer. The singer singing the song would have a creative encounter with the poet and with the composer. The critic's job is to tell us what's happening here, saying why there is value added in the setting and the performance (if there is!).

An inadequate setting or performance adds something that we don't simply see  as valuable. Instead of enhancing the performance of the poem, we get instructions for performing it very badly.


I like the idea of explaining my theoretical concepts with everyday language terms, like "the meeting of the minds" theory or the "goose bump effect." Compare that with the effect of Greek terminology. I could come up with the brilliant idea of "metanoetic prolepsis" to describe the goose flesh effect: our anticipation of being delighted by the creative encounter of two minds.  Which terms is more effective?  


 Being around smart people makes you smarter. So the ideal seminar or tete-a-tete with brilliant colleague also has that hypernoetic effect.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Rule of nine

I learned about this a few months ago.  

The fourth and fifth are the same interval inverted. So a fifth up from C is G, and a fourth down is also G. 

(4+5 = 9).  

The tritone up or down is the same same. You can think of that as four and a half.   

(4.5 + 4.5 = 9).  

So thirds and sixths, and seconds and sevenths, will also be the same. But the minor third, in the other direction, is a major sixth, and vice versa. The same relation holds with major and minor sevenths and seconds. So C up to B is major seventh, and C down a half step to B is a minor second. This makes sense if we think of the major as +.5 and the minor as -.5.   

It's one of those nice little symmetries, like so many in music theory.  

My Next Musical Skills

I think I have to do some solfège, then try to do some score analysis of basic classical forms in easy examples.  I need to practice transcribing the bass roots if chords in popular songs. I need to be able to play the Dorian mode in all keys. I need to learn enough of the Bach 2-part inventions to move on to the 3-part inventions.

I think 2019 will be the classical year for me.


I realized something very obvious about kitsch. It is not a quality of an object of art per se, but a relation. It is a function of audience expectation, then. If I think about Dante, then I have certain ideas about him, his canonical status, etc... If I think about an adaptation of Dante, then maybe my expectations would have to do with the medium of the adaptation: a graphic novel? a broadway musical? a television series? an art-rock concept album.

Arguments with myself

Doing a research project feels a lot like having an extended set of arguments with myself. For example, what do I do with a song setting that feels like a happy anthem when the poem itself is a tragic dirge (in my reading of it at least). Almost every point I make is the result of solving some problem by arguing myself into some position or other. No wonder that the academic's favorite word for putting forth an idea is argue.

Dream of Cymbals and Drums

Three small white girls have lost their parents. A Chinese family finds them and takes them in. It is too dangerous to call the police. They eventually take the girls back to China, where the girls learn how to be expert merchants in the Chinese style.

There is a cymbal with four Chinese characters written on it. They represent a rhythmic displacement of some kind, a syncopation that makes things more interesting. One of the girls, grown up now, has a music store. I walk in looking for a drum on which to play flamenco rhythms, and I see various devices. One turns out to be just a metronome, the shape and size of one of those old floppy disks. I see another one, though, that is both a metronome and an electronic drum, that you can play on on one side.

Still within the dream, I am impressed with this story and sit down to write it at a desk. There is a pad of paper there and I can write it with a fountain pen, I decide.

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.