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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...

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?