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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...

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Selling myself short

I now officially know how to improvise.  I just did it enough over a few tunes so that the harmonies became second nature. Then I learned "Autumn Leaves" in twenty-four hours and I can improvise to that. So I could theoretically do that with any song that I learned. Whether I can improvise well is another question, but what I mean is that I don't play wrong or unintended notes and don't get lost in the form, and that I can even camouflage mistakes when I do make them.

I can figure out a walking bass line for a chord progression.

I still play too basically in terms of left hand technique and putting extra voicing notes in the right hand. I am still at the level below mediocrity but I can play things that sound ok to people who don't know jazz very well or are not over critical. On Easter I played at a family gathering for a while and people thought it was good.


I have noticed that I sell myself short in a lot of respects. I have a desire not to seem arrogant. But this desire also causes me to not excel in certain areas or to take full ownership of everything I do, even in my scholarship. It's very odd. I imagine that many people also sell themselves short in many ways, perhaps not even realizing it.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Dream of Black Cats

We were in a large building with many black cats, trying to find our own. We would approach each one to try to see if it was the right one. Some responded aggressively and were definitely not him. Finally, I had the idea of calling our cat by its name, which I did, and he came to us immediately.


Real life context: I was cat-sitting for a month, the black cat that was the subject of the dream.  My friend is back now and we were sleeping in her house when I had this dream.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Ripple Effect

I found this concept in a drumming book (Secrets of the Hand) and am applying it to piano. If you start a phrase with a few fast notes, the whole phrase will appear faster, so you don't have to lay four sixteenth notes, you could play just two and shift to 8th notes, and the effect will seem almost as fast because the listener's ear will be lagging behind.

You can also play explosively by moving suddenly into a faster sequence of notes and then resuming the slower subdivisions. I hear this a lot in Coltrane, when he plays at a slower tempo. Really fast runs in the context of a slow tempo have an explosive power to them that's a little different from the steamroller effect when everything is super fast.  Having space between phrases also can make them more explosive.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The postulation of reality and the classic style

Borges defined the classic style in an essay called "The Postulation of Reality." He even uses the word "classical" several times in this essay and contrasts this style with the romantic style. I discovered this yesterday (I knew the essay before but hadn't made the connection) in my weekly conference with Thomas.

As is typical with Borges, he makes something very ordinary into something deeply strange-sounding. The classical trick of representing reality is not to represent or describe it, but conjure it up out of purely abstract schemata. This works because you don't actually need to paint with words or be expressive to make the reader imagine things.

Mediocrity (ix)

Perhaps other people are simply interested in other things than I am. What seems to me to be mediocre cultural / literary studies might be excellent history.  Not that I'm uninterested in history, but I think writing history through plot summaries of a lot of novels isn't the best approach.  Still, I extend that benefit of the doubt to research that is ok but not breathtakingly interesting.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Mediocrity (viii)

So the psychological costs of living in a mediocre environment are very high. Arrogance, resentment, hypocrisy, inauthenticity, depression. Complaining about how hard it is for me to be smarter than other people is not likely to evoke much sympathy. I also have to be careful when I lash out in frustration.

But consider the opposite situation. You are surrounded by intelligent people. They consider your ideas and don't make dumb objections to them. They might have points where they don't agree, but the level of discourse is high. Then all that resentment dissolves.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Mediocrity (vii)

I read something today for work, something I wouldn't have otherwise read except for a work requirement, etc... I was probably above the "mediocre" level, more of a B level. I could skew it either way, talk it up and explain why it is ok, or look for every flaw in it.

I guess what I would say: no imaginative flair, no "brilliance" in evidence.  Quotes dull (or wrong) things from other critics. A few obvious mistakes, but very few. He quotes someone else who talks about someone's reaction to an imminent historical event, something that hadn't happened yet, and that presumably nobody would know would happen. I would have to track down the original quote to see what the first critic said.


Whenever I talk about something like this I make sure I alter some identifying details to make it unidentifiable.  If I say I read something today, it was a year ago.  If I say it was a year ago, it was today. If I say he, I  mean she, etc...  

Monday, April 22, 2019

Mediocrity (vi)

What rankles is not the existence of mediocrity; by pure statistics, certain things will be in the middle range of quality. That is just the shape of the curve. What rankles is the holding up of the mediocre as some kind of model, and the social pressure that's involved in that. There was a guy in my department who was supposed to be great, etc... I guess that was the social fiction that we were all supposed to hold up. It was churlish of me to think he wasn't, since he somehow held a social status as being excellent, even though a view from outside that consensus might come to another position.

So the problem is not Billy Collins, but that idea of holding up Billy Collins as something special and exceptional.  He's just not. When you point that out, people will say you hate him because he is too "popular.' Well, yes. that is why. If he weren't popular I would never have heard of him so I couldn't hate him.  It is the lack of proportion between the merits and the reputation.  That is what rankles.


The late Merwin translates the poem like this:

Not he who in spring goes out to the field
and loses himself in the blue festivities
of men whom he loves, and is blind to the old
leather beneath the fresh down, shall be my friend always

but you, true friendship, celestial pedestrian who in winter
leave your house in the breaking dawn and set out
on foot, and in our cold find eternal shelter,
and in our deep drought the voice of the harvests.

It's fine; there are a few things I don't like, like the "of men whom he loves" of the third line, the unsingable tongue-twister "celestial pedestrian." "in the breaking dawn" isn't idiomatic to me. "Field" is ok but "fields" or country / countryside sounds better.

Siempre será mi amigo

Siempre será mi amigo no aquel que en primavera
sale al campo y se olvida entre el azul festejo
de los hombres que ama, y no ve el cuero viejo
tras el nuevo pelaje, sino tú, verdadera

amistad, peatón celeste, tú, que en el invierno
a las claras del alba dejas tu casa y te echas
a andar, y en nuestro frío hallas abrigo eterno
y en nuestra honda sequía la voz de las cosechas.

--Claudio Rodríguez

I want to set this to music, but I want to use my own translation.  

He will always be my friend, not the one who in Springtime
goes out into the countryside and gets lost in the blue festivities
of the men he loves, and cannot see the old leather
under the new fur, but you, true

friendship, celestial walker, you who in Winter
leave your house at break of dawn, and start 
walking, and in our cold find eternal shelter
and in our deep drought the voice of the harvests.  

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Mediocrity (v)

There is a kind of tedious book about intellectuals in the late Franco period, called El cura y los mandarines, by Gregorio Morán. The protagonist is a guy named Jesús Aguirre, priest turned into a Duke, an "intellectual" who actually never wrote anything of substance but seemed to be at the center of everything. The book is a bit tedious because it is longwinded and ultimately I don't care very much about Aguirre. It is useful because it has information about the founding of El País and about the inner workings of the Real Academia. Morán is constantly pointing out the mediocrity of this intellectual ambience, especially seemingly major figures like Julián Marías. This also gets tedious because he rarely explains why someone is so mediocre: it's just supposed to be self-evident. And what has Morán done to make us think he isn't mediocre as well?  There are valuable things in the book, but it isn't quite as great as I expected it to be. It offers that vicarious pleasure of feeling superior to people like Francisco Umbral or the elder Marías, but I am suspicious of that.


Carlos Bousoño was the best known critic of poetry in Spain. His whole system was based on a classification of metaphors, with his own terminology with labels like "imagen visionara."  I don't remember the other ones. I guess he was a disciple of Dámaso Alonso, the main philologist of the previous generation. I came across Bousoño when I was first in Spain. In graduate school I discovered that A. Debicki was the best known critic of Spanish poetry in the US.  I immediately saw his intellectual thinness.  It was self-evident to me, though a lot of other people seemed to think he was great.

I knew that I could be one of the top scholars in my field, because people like this were just not at a high level. The bad thing, obviously, was that this fueled my arrogance. It also wasn't good to be in a field that other people did not respect that much, or were not interested in.  I could be as good as possible, and people would still see me as a Debicki disciple, not reading either of us.  Or they could know I'm good but see me as exceptional within the field.

I'm still working on my arrogance. I'm sure these posts on mediocrity are not helping!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Mediocrity (iv)

Are we supposed to not notice mediocrity in order to be polite?  We can count number of publications, assuming that every publication is valid in its own way. This is the basis of academic civility.  If you look too closely, you might notice something is wrong.  I've had tenure cases where I've stopped reading because I didn't want to go too negative, and the more I read that worse things seemed.

The quality of the journal is supposed to be the gold standard. Thus if an article is in x journal, then it deserves to be. Then you don't have to read the article itself, you just mention what journal it is in. Scholar A had three articles in journal #1, two in journal #2, and two in journal #3. Then the standard is met; you don't have to go further than that. So by this logic it is not the outside evaluators who decide, but the peer reviewers for those journals. It follows that peer review is the only place where you're allowed to call out mediocrity for what it is.

This is unfair to the brilliant article in the second rate journal. That's too bad. I guess that scholar has to know not to waste that article on an inferior venue.  


So I went to my fourth or fifth music department concert. I never go to a concert without gaining new insights. This was seven music students, grad students I believe though there could have been an undergraduate in there, playing seven sonatas by Beethoven, as part of a series where they will play all of them.  It lasted almost three hours, from 2:30 to 5:15 on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. In attendance were a few friends of the musicians and some representatives of the generation who frequent classical music events: those over 70.

They were playing different pieces, but they also sounded different stylistically. The first woman, who was blind, had an emotional immediacy to her playing.  The last one had a beautiful cantabile feeling. The guy who played the appassionata was very good if a bit more bombastic. He was the only non-Chinese or Chinese American player of the bunch. Another sounded more Neo-classical, etc... Some were as different from each other as a piece of hard wood and a supple leather belt.

This was a bit of reality check for me. I have a good idea that I am still on the other side of mediocrity from these players, but even mediocrity seems well out of my reach today. Another insight is that getting better is about gaining access to more repertory instead of being stuck to a narrow set of pieces that happen to be within my grasp now.

I also saw a percussion concert the other day. There was a piece by Cage on some Conga drums, which was ok, but some of the other pieces were really interesting. I had the insight that composing for percussion allows for a whole nother set of sensibilities to come out.

Mediocrity (iii)

I did a tenure evaluation once. The person's work looked solid from the outside, but it was a marginal case. The tone was very ponderous, as though the person had great and important, ground-breaking things to say, but you kept reading it and it never got to the point.  There was no there there. Quantitatively, it satisfied requirements for promotion, but there was just nothing there as far as I was concerned.

Here's the problem, though. Maybe it was good and I just wasn't seeing it.  It could be that I am so far away from what other people are interested in that I have some giant blind spots. Not spots, really, but whole territories.


I'm reading The Husband's Secret, by Liane Moriarty.  It is way below the level of anything I would normally read. It's got the cardboard characters, the clichéd dialogue, all that stuff.  The device for creating suspense is childishly simplistic. Just open the damned letter already, lady!  Even the attempts at good writing are overdone, like the" two fat tears making snail paths down her aunt's pink, powdery cheek." The startling thing is not that this kind of thing exists, but that it is popular. It even has a reader's guide at the end, for the book clubs, as though anything in the book were not transparently available to be seen.

I'm doing it in order to do something unusual, beyond my comfort zone. Everyone should do this kind of thing once in a while, whatever it is.

Mediocrity (ii)

If you have to pass through mediocrity, it is because you still haven't attained it.  You should aspire to that first.  For my jazz piano playing that would playing something that sounded very conventional and clichéd, but with the idiomatically correct clichés, like the barely audible jazz piano in a movie cocktail party that's just supposed to be there as ambience. The guy or gal playing that is better than I am, so I could aspire to get there.

Thursday, April 18, 2019


You have to pass through mediocrity on the way to excellence. There is no way "around" it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Good Bait

I was driving home from the airport and the song "Good Bait" (Tad Dameron) in Coltrane's version came on, bluetoothed from my phone onto my car's audio system. Hearing this made me think that I could do something imaginatively bold with my life, even if arguably I haven't done anything like that yet. Coltrane just has a larger than life presence; it's not just seeing something well done, but imagining that all self-imposed limits are artificial creations.  It would follow, then, that part of the transformative power of art is this: empowering the listener or viewer to glimpse something transcendent. This can happen through a transcendent genius like Coltrane (or put in the name of your inspiration in place of my hame.)

Or it could happen differently through an artist that you might see as a "permission granter," someone who in some way gives you permission to do your own thing.  For me that would be Ron Padgett, a poet who writes in a way that (seemingly) anyone should be able to manage, without being a transcendent figure in this way. The poems by the bus driver protagonist of the Jarmusch film "Paterson" are written by Padgett. The way a song written by a small child might open up your possibilities.

Of course, literature shapes subjectivity in other ways. The reader identifies with fictional characters and thus has access to other subjectivities not one's own. Or the reader identifies with the lyric speaker of a poem or series of poems. This is reading as "self-fashioning" (Greenblatt).  

I found this poem

El susurro de unos cepillos de alambre sobre la piel del recuerdo

converso con las sombras, boxeo, gesticulo en las sombras

el recuerdo ya no es esa piel de tambor

ya no es de piel, podría ser el "cincuentón obeso"

de Cernuda, el "conviene percutir" de José Angel

es un aforismo ingente, atrabiliario, repetido hacia la saciedad

en la compulsión de hurgar en las sombras de alambre


A whisper of wire brushes on the skin of memory

I talk with the shadows, shadow box, gesticulate

memory is no longer that drum skin,

it is not made of skin, it might be Cernuda's

"obese fifty-year old man," José Angel's "time for percussion"

it is an overgrown aphorism, hostile and repeated ad nauseam

in the compulsion to root around in memories of wire 

Saturday, April 13, 2019


In a coffee shop or restaurant there will be someone holding forth in a voice that fills the entire space, or at least one section of it in which you happen to be sitting. The other people at the table will be silent, or at least inaudible in their very brief interventions. The impression is of a continuous, uninterrupted monologue. The content of what they are saying does not matter as much as the capacity to assert a presence. Afterwards if you were to ask them they would say that they were talking to a friend in a coffee shop.


Sometimes the tone of a discussion is such that you know right away that the people at the next table are evangelicals. Before even telltale words appear: Jesus, biblical, church...

Friday, April 12, 2019

Dream of Poetry Reading

My friends Stan and Judy were arranging a reading.  The first act was to be a couple playing some kind of special ethnic music. It turned out to be very dull, disappointing all my expectations. It sounded like generic blues. Then it was my turn.  I read three poems and the event was over. Later I felt I should have read more: there was plenty of time left.

The second board

The second board was much easier.  I knew exactly what I was doing and only needed two grades of sandpaper, 100 and 220.  I didn't waste time strapping the paper into a sanding block; I just sanded with a piece of the paper in my hand. The problem now is that I need something more difficult to make, but not too difficult so as to get discouraged.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


I completed my first maple cheese board.  The wood should darken over time. All I did was to sand the surfaces and round the edges a bit, and treat the whole thing with generous amounts of mineral oil, so it seems an exaggeration to think that I made it with my hands. I'm going to have to think of some projects that aren't quite as simplistic.


I reject the idea that you should speak in unconfident ways, be afraid of putting forward an argument strongly, without hedges... Are you doing your readers any favors by being suspicious of your own ability to say what you have to say?  This clotted, ultra-meta discourse that so many people use is not necessary. The last two speakers in peninsular we've brought, Jim Fernández and Sebastiaan Faber, gave talks that anyone coming off the street would be able to understand.

Dream of Mute Piano

I was playing in a piano recital.  The notes of the piano would not make a sound when I touched the keys.  I was supposed to accompany someone else, but no sound came out of the piano I was trying to play. This is rather dumb, because even a child can push down a piano key and make a sound, but I had some sort of mental block that made me forget how to do it. The woman who was in charge of it all was getting impatient. I tried another piano close by and it worked. I then played Mompou's Música callada #3. I got through most of it without mistakes. In my dream I was actually playing the correct notes and I knew exactly what they were, and this is in fact the piece I am playing for my recital. I remember thinking that the trick was managing one's own emotions, ones own adrenaline, in order to maintain muscular control.

 I woke before I could play the second piece, my own composition.    

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Dream of Time Travel City

We were lost in a city; it was impossible to retrace one's steps. The other person with me was possibly my daughter. As we wandered around the city began to feel medieval, with people carrying medieval weapons and dressed of that epoch. I concluded that we were in a time travel city where the time was unstable and could shift from one period to the other fluidly. The language seemed to be French, so I pretended to be British. I was curiously free of fear. The people were not hostile, and accepted my pretense and my fake accent.  I went to a hotel; there was an elevator so I had to think the epoch was early twentieth century now.  

Sunday, April 7, 2019


In keeping with my new habit of going to the music department faculty recitals, I heard the Poulenc violin and piano sonata dedicated to Lorca just now.  I had no idea of the pieces they would be playing, I was just going to a random concert.

I am filled with emotion. although the piece does not enjoy a great reputation, I found it incredibly moving.

I also introduced myself to the violinists and to a few sopranos on the faculty who were in the audience.  Normally, I wouldn't talk to anyone, but I figured what the hell.


I sanded down my first cheese board. I dampened it and will sand it again tomorrow if the grain feels rough again.  They say that if you don't do this step then the board will get rough the first time someone rinses it off.

Then I will oil it and it will be done. It seems very easy to make, but the point of doing it is to see where it leads after that.  The surface of the board I got was already fairly smooth on most sides, so it was just a matter of rounding the edges a bit and sanding two ends.

The point of doing it is just to be able to make something by hand. It is a missing piece for me.  I delayed start on this for a while. There is something about confronting emotions here. We are comfortable with the negative emotions we have; we just want to keep them close to us. We are less comfortable with new emotions, even if they may bring positive changes.

Other new things I'm doing: going to free concerts at the music school. I developed a new style of improvising on the piano, consisting of playing very slow chords in the left hand and very fast improv over them in the right.  The slower the harmonic rhythm, the more room for super fast elaboration in the right hand. It is not really a way to play in the long term, simply a device to use to develop a lot of improv ideas.


In dreams we think, try to figure things out, make decisions and act. The dreamer though, has set up the situation for one who finds him/herself in that situation. The dreaming subject, then, is double. We recognize the capacity for acting in a situation one finds oneself from waking life. Also, we have the capacity for conjuring up mentally a hypothetical scenario of a certain type and placing ourselves in it. We might do that when thinking about future or past events, or imagining someone else's experience, as when reading fiction or seeing a movie.

The unconscious is sloppy, not concerned with precision. So two people can fuse, or one separate into two.  Geographies are uncertain too. The acting subject tries to deal with the incoherence set forward by the scenario-projecting subject, who has set things up in a confusing way, simply because the unconscious mind doesn't care about precision in that way. The conscious dreamer can accept reality as it is presented in the scenario, or also question it. I think it's Kafka who best captures that particular incoherence: it's not that the dream is strange, but that we often go along with that strangeness, or our protests are ineffectual when we do question it.  We ought to have freedom to dream what we want, but instead our minds present diminished, less free versions of reality itself.  We are trapped by our own minds.

Dream of Music

My music teacher was going to come over to talk about electric wheelchairs for her father. I. was unclear about why, since I don't know anything about the subject. When she showed up she was a completely different person, a young blonde woman I was very drawn to. It eventually turned out she was not my piano teacher, but a voice teacher I had had before. (Though she didn't actually look like her, either.) She began talking to me about who I had studied voice with. The topic of wheelchairs didn't really come up, though I think my mom had one in the shed... We seemed to be in my house in Davis. I mentioned that my daughter had studied to be a professional musician, yet in the dream my daughter was still an infant.    

Friday, April 5, 2019


There is a guy I don't like very much, former colleague.  His name is sacrosanct around here, and so I just assumed that I was in a minority. I don't really dislike him intensely, even, but I just never felt the level of praise he received was at all merited, and that there was something that rubbed me the wrong way, though I've never been able to define what it was either.  It's fine, since he's far away now and we don't have to see each other. I always tried to be nice to him and not let on at all about how I felt. I haven't bad-mouthed him to others either. He probably doesn't like me either, and he would be justified in that, though to his credit he's treated me cordially on the surface.    

I've discovered, though, that I am not the only one.  Today I finally mentioned to two other people that I never liked this guy, and they agreed with me completely. It comes as a relief. We are in a bit of a tumult here, with our chair resigning after some conflictive situations that have been going on for a year or so. We've had an HR study of our climate, an administrative "minder" looking over our shoulders, and an external review that we haven't seen yet.  I just had to get off my chest that this other guy is not as great as everyone thinks.    

Ex tempore

Why is improvisation seen as difficult in music but so easy in speaking?

Suppose we could only speak by reading off a script; we would be very limited in our means of expression. If, furthermore, we never wrote a script ourselves, but only followed scripts written by others. To what extent could we really be said to understand language in such circumstances?  

Yet that is how music is taught.

In vernacular traditions, at least, the player learns to play by ear, or to improvise right away. We know that improvisation used to be stronger in the classical tradition as well.

Thursday, April 4, 2019


When I improvise, I hear the entire next phrase in my head before I play it, so that when I actually play it, even if it is fast phrase, it can feel slow and relaxed: after all I have just heard it in my head much faster than I play it. This doesn't always occur, of course. Sometimes my fingers play things I have not heard first in my head. Those phrases are much worse.

The best phrases will feel very definite, very intentional, not tentative in the least.

Since I am not a very great improviser, I find it remarkable that I can do it at all. Extrapolating to someone far better than I am, I can see that they are hearing things in their head very fast and playing in a relaxed and intentional way when they actually come to play the phrase. It never seems like they are rushed to think of what to play.

The trick is not making things up on the spot, then, but making those improvised ideas sound inevitable in context. To achieve that I improvise hours and hours over a few different chords changes. That would seem to be the way to move forward.


We can all improvise in conversational situations.  That's what conversation is, right?  You might have a script for an interview or a sale pitch, but once you have to answer and unexpected question improvisation comes in.  The sentence you are about to speak can also appear in your mind instantaneously before you speak it, so that the utterance itself comes out effortlessly.  Or you can start to speak and flounder a bit, lose your place. Everyone can converse; some are better than others, but it is not a rare skill to have.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


In this dream I was with my mother. We were to perform a funereal ritual called the ???? for my father. (The word was very clear in my mind, even after awakening, but I can't recall it now.) We went to one church in Sacramento, and were directed to another one. I wondered why we just couldn't have called to find out where it was supposed to be. At the second church, we went down into a basement area and found the room, after walking through a bath-like area, perhaps suggesting baptismal fonts.

Apparently this was a kind of second funeral, performed several years after the death. My father died in 2000, but in the dream the event seemed closer in time. I found a small slip of paper on which my mother had written of her hardships taking care of my father in his illness. She talked of not having enough protein and having to chew multivitamins to get enough nourishment.  I began to weep, and the rest of the dream was basically me weeping. I felt guilty at not having helped my mother. At some point someone tried to comfort me.


Now my mother helps to care for my sister, who has a rarer form of dementia that hits people in late middle age.  At the same time, she has my niece living there as well, with a caregiver who comes in, so the burden is not all on her. The emotion in the dream is very real to me, even though in real life my mother has dealt with tasks of caring for others quite well.  Between the time my father died and my sister was diagnosed with dementia, she voluntarily cared for several people not even related to her, as well as helping out her own parents.

Monday, April 1, 2019


I try to improve one piece significantly for each piano lesson.  So taking it from sight-reading to being able to play it through fluently, or from that to memorization, or from that to working on the artistic interpretation. That way, with each lesson I improve something tangibly. The other pieces I happen to be working on will stand still, but that is preferable to working on four pieces at once and having no discernible improvement with any of them.

So far, I've learned several from the Mompou "Música callada." The Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and a Chopin Prelude in E minor. I have a few Schumann things I'm working through.  There have also been pieces I've begun but never finished learning well. I'm learning faster now, so there's that.