Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Saw the Sign, but My Eyes Remained Partially Closed

There's a building on a corner lot a couple blocks away from my apartment that I generally only pass if I take an alternate route home from campus. The building announces its presence with a large roadside sign that says:


Since I only passed it every so often, it was something of a conundrum to me, something to the extent of "why is there a car rental agency in such an out-of-the-way location?" It was not until I changed up my routine and passed the sign for several days in a row that I finally noticed that it was an apartment building, presumably founded by Isabel and Carlos, and not, in fact, a car rental place at all. But up until this point, I had really been, in interpreting the sign, acting as though car rentals really were involved in the building.

The main cause of this is surely the fact that the sign says, in so many letters "is a car rental." What is interesting to me, then, is that the "is a car" at the front of the sentence so greatly outweighed the "apartments" at the end. But at the same time, from my first reading of the sign, I could tell that something wasn't right, whether that had to do with the actual building in its actual location or in text of the sign. I suppose if it had been something more crucial to my own survival I might've spent more time figuring it out, but as it was I managed to carry around the insecurity about the sign for many months before finally figuring it out.

I'm not sure that I intend this post to be anything more than just what I think is an interesting anecdote, but if pressed, I suppose I'd say that my processing of this sign is an example which clearly demonstrates that there is a conceptual semantics which underlies the parsing of meaning-in-language, which is only important when I'm stuck talking to literati types that seem to think that "everything is language" and don't like it when I tell them that they're stupid. Oh well.

Vicarious Lunchbreak Dallapiccola Criticism

Anthony Tommasini on a recent Luigi Dallapiccola concert given by the American Symphony Orchestra (I didn't see this, incidentally):
"Throughout this gritty, bleak and astringent score, it is impossible to resist the sheer dramatic thrust and entrancing harmonic richness of the music."
This resistance is not impossible. Like you could probably track down the guy in the NY Philharmonic audience last September who blew his nose ten seconds into a performance of a bit of Boulez's "Pli selon Pli." I bet he could resist Dallapiccola.

I wanted to cherry-pick this line because I'm kind of torn about it. I really like the idea of people in the arts or humanities making falsifiable assertions about things for once. On the other hand, it's no fun when it takes less than a minute to falsify. Well, except for the fun of being ironically pedantic.

I can never like Dallapiccola as much as I want to like Dallapiccola, meanwhile. He had an incredible sense of quiet, slow, delicate music, but all his loud, emphatic music sounds like twisted Schoenbergian wreckage to me. Consequently everything inevitably gets really disappointing to me exactly when it needs to be getting dramatic. I haven't heard a note of it performed live, though.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Faulty Mnemonic

To take a break from partially baked thoughts around publishing: For whatever reason I've been typing the word "embarrass" slightly more often than usual over the past couple of weeks, which has me thinking about the fact that I systematically misspell that word in a way that I don't for most other common words.

The reason for this, I think, is that some time ago I accidentally developed a false mnemonic for how to spell the word:

"I would be embarassed [sic] if someone saw my bare [one 'r'] ass [two esses]."

Now, when this mnemonic comes to mind I'm able to consciously tamp it down, but given that I usually misspell "embarrass" with one "r" on my first pass and the mnemonic seems always to be hovering at the edge of my consciousness at that point I suspect that it's involved in the mistake somehow. If nothing else it's certainly part of my conscious process for spelling the word right, that being:

1. Write "embarass".
2. Check my spelling (with or without computer assistance).
3. Remember "embarass" isn't right.
4. Think of mnemonic.
5. Remember mnemonic isn't right.
6. Correct spelling in violation of mnemonic.

There are a few other words I regularly have problems with but I think "embarrass" is unique for me as far as having a faulty trick for recalling it. How about for anyone else? Any other false mnemonics out there?

Self-Publishing, cont'd.

In response to Pete's earlier post about self-publishing (or at least in tangential response), I'm going to put my own thoughts here alongside some very similar thoughts Nate expressed in a lunchbreak email today.



I do have to say that I'm not particularly interested in critics' role in gatekeeping literature -- I can't help but suspect that those sort of academic critical views of criticism's participation in literature are mostly a product of critics playing God, Stanley Kurtz-like, up within the jungly recesses of their own assholes -- I'm more interested in the possibilities that
* With cheaper, easier, Internet-assisted distribution and hardcopy publication, the value added in a commercially published book is proportionately more the selection and professional-level editing than just making the book available in the first place;
* Communities of readers may be willing to provide some amount of that value themselves, or do without it;
* For virtually all readers, there is real value in, and/or a strong unconscious predisposition towards, reading (and more generally thinking) basically the same content as the other people we're in contact with;
* As more and more books (and writings of any kind) become available through channels not managed by commercial publishers, although indie-rock-like communities may more easily spring up and consist, some mechanism will probably emerge to keep most readers reading the same thing at the same time (an analogous, anecdotal point seems to have been made about current blog content).

The latter point strikes me as the most interesting and it would be nice if some numbers around it were to drop into my lap (as it is I suppose I could go googling on my own time) since I believe it's the case that more and more books have been been published over the past decades (including by conventional publishing means) while people's individual reading capacity, I assume, has stayed more or less fixed.


My thoughts are kind of half-baked here, but: I'd say there's a kind of "filter" mechanism (I don't want that term necessarily loaded with value judgment, by the way) that determines what gets widely read. Looking at actual books, it goes something like: publishers (what's published), booksellers (what's presented to readers), critics or just conventional wisdom (what's made popular).

The digital age is shaking this up, but like Nate says, there's too much to read. It's going to get filtered one way or another.

Self-publishers can skip that first part of the filter (publishing) but not the rest of it, which is why they're not widely read. It's not so hard to imagine booksellers becoming less important, but I think that'll just make the critics more influential (at least in the sense of developing a conventional wisdom of what's worth reading).

I don't think anything is going to "suffer for the absence of critics." I think the idea of "suffering for the absence of critics" is just a myth cooked up by the critics, actually.

Also, don't forget that with commercial publishing drying up you've got money disappearing of the system. I think before you see a complete atomization or democratization of literature (like a bunch of indie-rockers working for no money) you'll see philanthropy or academic support stepping up (at least for writing of artistic or scholarly value) which will put a whole new filter in place.

Anyway, the important issue is that all books in whatever form are thoroughly copyedited by richly remunerated professionals.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Everybody Gets a Trophy Day

It's Oscars time!! I would like to share my opinions about Best Picture in an efficient chart-based form. (Click for larger.)

That's about the extent of my feelings about the Oscars, although I'm hoping as much as the next guy (and even without buying into the whole "Batman" phenomemon) that the Academy comes through with the appropriate posthumous recognition for an undeniably gripping portrayal of the Joker.

I'm not so broken up about not being able to watch the awards. I'm a little broken up about not being able to watch the university Percussion Group's traditional same-night-as-the-Oscars concert (I don't know if they plan it this way or what, but that's three years in a row, at least) but the girlfriend's mother is in from out of town and so it's Pepe's for pizza dinner, which is of course great.
* * * * *
LATE UPDATE 10:11 PM OK, we went out to see "The Reader." Deciding to view "The Reader" will result in an entertainment experience that meets baseline requirements for satisfaction.

I was wondering about the unusually John Adams-like soundtrack (where one would expect a straight shot of Philip Glass, in a film like this) and it turns out it was composed by official classical phenom Nico Muhly. So that makes sense, being that Muhly draws from both Glass and Adams. On the other hand it's not a particularly good soundtrack.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Poetry Friday!

I would never think that any of you didn't get Jack's reference to William Carlos Williams the other day, but I was recently reminded of this excellent homage to the same poem by Kenneth Koch:

Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Lunchbreak Steelers Fix

The newspaper in Saginaw, Michigan, ran an article about their hometown hero LaMarr Woodley this week (linked from James Walker's AFC North Blog at ESPN) which makes for heartwarming reading in general. But I wanted to post it because he also explains that leg kick move he does after he sacks someone:
[Woodley, since high school] refused to celebrate after he sacked the quarterback.

Until this year.

"I didn't want to waste the energy . . . I just wanted to get back to the huddle and get ready for the next play," Woodley said. "But during training camp, one of the players said I needed one, so I kind of came up with something with a kick.

"I call it the 'door kick' like you're kicking in the door to get to the quarterback. It's not the high kick, because when you kick the door open, you aim for the middle, where the doorknob is."
So there you go. Woodley, incidentally, has now permanently disproved the Sports Illustrated cover jinx retroactive to December.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wistfulness and Tragedy

Gabriel Fauré: Pavane (1887) for orchestra (and optional chorus)
Richard Wagner: Andante (mvt. II) from Symphony in C major (1832)
Jan Ladislav Dussek: Concerto in B-flat major (1805–06) for two pianos and orchestra
Hector Berlioz: Nuits d'Été (1841/1856) for voice and orchestra
Fauré: Suite from Pelleas and Melisande (1898) for orchestra
I'll hold off on saying much until the long-anticipated Actual Radio Show Blogging begins, soon. That Régine Crespin album is one of the best things ever, though.

The Man in the Ivory Tower

Is there a difference between complaining about your workload as a (graduate) student and having a heavy workload, feeling like you want to talk about it, so saying things like "I'm not complaining, but..."? I've found myself on several instances this past week leading discussions of my current semester with that "I'm not complaining, but..." clause, enough times that I'm now concerned that I actually am complaining. But I think it's more like having any other job--sometimes you just want to talk about what you do. And currently, I read like its a full-time job (again, this is what graduate school is; I'm not complaining--if anything I like it), so this post, which I intend to be further ruminations on the notion of self-publishing, is going to be much more extemporaneous than I'd like it to be, but I'm, like, you know, busy, so worried that if I don't type this now (about 20 minutes before I head to my Literary Theory class (tonight: Barthes' seminal text, "Death of the Author" which, as much as I "don't like it," turns out to be somewhat appropriate to the discussion which I hope to further seed with this post)) than I won't get around to writing it until its already become less urgent to my running-at-capacity-these-days-in-terms-of-literature mind. [Ed: I did not actually finish this post before class. I am finishing it now, Friday afternoon, having just watched last night's Conan O'Brien on the internet and with no particular plans for the evening.]

So... preliminaries: this post is a continuation of this post, which expressed primarily, an excitement at the fact that Philip K. Dick's widow, Tessa, has published a book based on the final idea that he had been working on at the time of his death, but also surprise at the fact that this book was being self-published, with the reason for that listed as the Author's inability to find an editor. As it turns out, I, in my capacity as a GA at my university, am the assistant editor of a small literary journal (and will be the "executive" editor of it starting in the fall (the journal's 20th anniversary year, as it turns out)). So I'm quite curious about this sort of thing. I was also very interested by the comment that Don brought up about potential parallels between independent music publishing and self-publishing in print. And we've also had the good luck of having the author herself comment on the aforementioned post as well (which is exciting for me, in that I spent several years in college reading pretty much every novel of PKD's that I could get my hands on, so have enough fan enthusiasm in that regard).

The basic questions, then, are:

Why is this particular book self-published?
Does this/should this matter?

(I've got to admit that I feel myself pre-writing a post which is way too heady, or headier than I want it to be, anyway (I was just thinking to myself about what the next sentence should be, started something like "As Walter Benjamin famously noted..." but I should avoid this (goodness, I'll never finish this post before class (and wow! "regular" readers , have you ever seen me be this referential to my own existence as a student?))).)

I suppose my most optimistic appraisal of the potential for self-publishing would be that it could be functionally anti-capitalist, in that it might undermine the corporate-driven book culture which, one might imagine, sees books as simple commodity-objects aimed at various consumer demographics. This draws on the potential demonstrated by independent music projects, which are syndicalist in nature, where small, community-driven hubs of artifact-production plug into a wider network of similarly-minded distributors. Any broad appeal, by this model, is driven by curiosity or quality in a locally-aimed output; that is, albums are produced by independent bands for their friends, the CDs or LPs are sold at their shows, and perhaps made available on the internet through centralized marketplaces or distributorships. This takes a local phenomenon and makes it national (or global) without requiring a shift in scope of the music recording itself (the last time the "corporations" attempted this was with Seattle and "grunge" music). An example: when I was in college in Pittsburgh, I was really into a bunch of bands from Richmond, Virginia. When one of the bands toured through, they also introduced the other bands from their community--the music was about Richmond, but enjoyable in Pittsburgh, without any authoritarian broad-audience editorship of the music itself. It was enjoyable in Pittsburgh because a similar audience existed in both cities (though his audience was a small one).

But is the same thing possible with books? My sense is that there's something different about language communities and musical communities (though my sense is also that the language-folks would try real hard to convince me that everything is language (it isn't)). Part of this has to do with literary tradition. Whether a text is canonical or not, it is still in dialogue with its historicity. And "Literature," as it turns out, has a long history of criticism and quality control, and this has almost always started at the level of being published in the first place; that is, the book has to be published first by one house or another, before it can be welcomed, criticized, or ignored. Because it costs money to print books, and to recoup those costs, you need to sell enough books. So, with some sense of audience in mind, the publishers employed editors to determine and ensure [Ed: This is where the second burst of writing begins.] whether or not something will recoup its costs.

This editorial apparatus also allows for a critical apparatus, in that it presents a systematic distance between the author and the text (whereas a community-bases author would rely on a closeness). The critics would argue that it is the criticism, even more than the editing, that maintains the "standards" of "literature." So even if a book is published independently, or even self-published within a community, it may well overcome the editor/publisher paradigm, but does it suffer for the absence of critics? This depends on how similar the small community of readers that promotes a self-published book into being maps onto a larger, demographically broader community of readers. And this itself depends on whether or not a given self-published book even wants to have access to that larger audience (I think it's the general assumption that they do want to be as popular as books from the major corporate presses), because if the book doesn't want to be criticized it is probably unfair to do so. But also, it seems to me that the smaller community, in that it also has to keep its own community intact, will be less likely to criticize a given book published therein.

Given all of this, though, if something that was self-published does gain a wider audience, is it fair to criticize it as if it had been published in the standard corporate fashion? I would argue that yes, you can criticize it, since the text has overrun its author's intention, so even if the author never wanted it to be read by a broad audience (though, again, this is claim that strikes me as non-standard), once a text is read broadly, it must be acclimated to that new audience (i.e. criticized). It is most often the case, though, that self-published works never break through the barrier into that broader audience. Why is this the case?

It may extend beyond just aspects of distribution. Small-audience texts probably fulfill a different set of demands as those that are written with a broader audience in mind. Or, a text which satisfies a certain market (like that of a group of enthusiasts for a certain topic) does so at other levels than that of "good fiction." Hence genre-fiction in the first place. Philip K. Dick ends up being a great example of this, as he was a pulp sci-fi writer for the bulk of his career, and thereafter his books gained a new life as post-modern literature. What was good science fiction became good literature, but the same book--say, A Scanner Darkly (since this is the book that I read for an undergraduate literary theory class)--is good as literature by a different set of criteria than it was good as good science fiction. The two genre distinctions overlap to some extent, but my point is that the amount of overlap varies from work to work, and the expectation is that what is considered to be the "best" sci-fi will also be the "best-written" from a critical perspective.

So in the case of Tessa Dick's book (which I have now read the first chapter of--it does indeed seem to be priming a book which will be dealing with very Dickian themes (the importance of the soundtracks in movies, for instance)), my initial surprise at its being self-published was because I would have expected the now-broadened audience of Philip K. Dick to be big enough as to present a market share which is alluring to book-profiteers (though it occurs to me now that just because people had to, like, read his books, didn't mean that they, like, liked them (the way I did--which is to say, I may never have read PKD if it wasn't being read in college-level lit classes, as I wouldn't necessarily have gotten deep enough into the genre of science fiction as a whole to get to him), but this isn't necessarily indicative of there being a particularly large/active audience for PKD at the consumer level). Since it already, apparently, failed to find an editor or publisher, what Tessa Dick's book relies on, then, is whether or not there's a large enough community of readers in the first place for her enterprise to be considered successful. In that the book exists at all, this answer must be "yes." Whether this community also supports self-publishing writers whose work will hold up to the scrutiny of traditional values and criticism is much more questionable, and indeed, may be, by definition, an impossibility.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Further to the Dead Presidents

As a late addendum to Nate's list of presidential nuggets of interest, I submit this week's Shouts & Murmurs piece from the New Yorker, which got me to laugh. Yoni Brenner:
On a rainy night in 1793, the Van Buren family ox slipped in the mud, fracturing its foreleg. Realizing that the ox was no longer any good to anyone, Abe Van Buren loaded his flintlock and took aim, when, all of a sudden, his ten-year-old son, Martin, leaped in front of the ox and cried, “If you shoot this ox, Father, you would do as well to shoot me! For this unfortunate beast is no less God’s creation than I.” And so his father shot him. Then he turned to Martin’s identical twin and said, “From now on, you’re Martin.” And that is how Phil Van Buren became President of the United States.
It kind of goes from there. Yoni Brenner made me laugh out loud with one of these in the past, too. I applaud the occasional ability of Shouts & Murmurs to actually be funny.

For additional dead presidents commentary, you can refer to Jay-Z, who is out for them to represent him.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Empire Still Hasn't Ended

One of the first whispered pejoratives that I learned upon entering my MFA program was the stigma of (again, kind of whisper it) "Oooh... she (or he)'s self-published..." I think for most literate folk, this bias exists already, but it was funny, that day in early Autumn, 2007, to hear the label of "self-published" used in actually deprecatory reference to an actual person. And it generally stands as such; self-published? You must suck (with the usual sideways glance to whatever amount of Walt Whitman's work was self-published).

It remains to be seen whether the internet and publishing-on-demand will overthrow the notion of self-publication (I tend to think that editors are a good thing, and that the kind of pseudo-free market of internet shops (especially those that generate the notoriously biased "recommendations" that steadily reinforce themselves and guide shoppers to fewer and fewer products within sites that claim to offer "just about everything") is a bad thing.) but my general stance could probably be caricatured as "most people suck at everything" so who knows...

That being said, it was recently announced that Philip K. Dick's wife, Tessa, is publishing a novel she has written based on PKD's last idea for a novel. According to the news brief there-linked, there are references in the story to Dante's Inferno and the Faust legend, which seems standard enough fair (I'm avoiding being a jerk and not going to make fun of that more). One presumes that there will also be gnostic religious references and crab-handed aliens. As interesting as this news might be to a half-assed PKD aficinado like myself, not to mention all the full-bore Dickthusiasts, that enthusiasm is pretty well deflated by the fact that Ms. Dick couldn't find a publisher for her book, especially given the cultural cache that Dick maintains (if you're not familiar with his writing, you've almost certainly seen at least one sci-fi movie based on a story of his (i.e. Blade Runner, Total Recall, Paycheck, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, etc.)).

I suppose, though, that until Dick's "Exegesis" is revealed in full to the reading world, in all of its undoubtably zany glory, nothing will really be that interesting or important.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Day of the Dead Presidents

I was much surprised late last week to learn that I actually have Presidents Day off from work as a paid holiday. Thanks to the HR magic of the "floating holiday" this has not been the case at my previous two jobs, and Presidents Day has generally lost out in the floater sweepstakes to other days I'd rather have off, such as Martin Luther King Day, The Friday Before Memorial Day Weekend Day, Nate Doesn't Want To Go To Work Today Day, etc. So far (with the small asterisk of having to be awake for an hour to make breakfast for Kyle and myself before she had to drive back south to McMinnville, this definitely not being a holiday for her) I've managed to wake up, totally unaided by an alarm clock, just about exactly at 11 AM. This means that about 50% of my goals for the day have been accomplished already.

Before I concoct a list of other practical tasks to do in the 6 remaining hours during which I'd normally be at work, I'd like to pay a brief tribute to some former-President-related things that I like, other than Washington and Lincoln and any other former Presidents who may be explicitly honored by this omnibus holiday. In the spirit of extreme, still-in-my-pajamas day-off laziness, no links are provided.

* * * * *

Nixon In China by John Adams
John Adams' first opera (first performed in 1987) paints former President Richard Nixon as a sympathetic if not very recognizable figure: Alice Goodman's fairly abstract libretto largely paints him as a stunned witness to his own unfolding history, on both a global and personal scale. I haven't seen a production of the opera yet, meaning I can't talk to how it works as a whole, but Nixon's music is some Adams' best and catchiest stuff -- he relies on the boppy and/or mesmerizing repeated rhythms and chords of "minimalist" music much more than he does in more recent works but uses them to build a traditionally structured and almost romantically expressive whole. I'm looking forward to the Metropolitan Opera's staging of the work in their 2010-2011 season, which I intend to make my way to New York to see.

Bonus points for John Adams sharing a former President's name, which in casual conversations about musical tastes can cause non-classical listeners to ask surprised questions about our nation's second chief executive composing music, and why some of that music was large-scale operas about political events of the 1970s and 1980s.

"James K. Polk" by They Might Be Giants
I came to realize a couple of years ago that They Might Be Giants' Factory Showroom has some serious (if quirky) chops as an indie pop album, stringing together a number of catchy, well-put-together songs ("Till My Head Falls Off", "How Can I Sing Like A Girl?", "Exquisite Dead Guy", "Spiralling Shape", "Pet Name" being favorites of mine) that beat back my old, common-enough prejudice that They Might Be Giants write likeable but dorky music mostly appropriate for dorky fourteen-year-olds.

The album's song that best fits the dorky-fourteen mold, "James K. Polk", is still great in its own way. It's a galloping ballad that, over a strumming acoustic guitar, lays out the main points of Polk's campaign and presidency with the precision of a middle school book report ("[he] made sure the tariffs fell / and made the English sell the Oregon Territory / he built an independent treasury / having done all this he sought no second term") and serves as a tongue-in-cheek indictment of Manifest Destiny. As the song notes at the end, "precious few have mourned the passing of" former President Polk or his aggressively expansionist policies.

Simpsons jokes about former Presidents
The Simpsons' "I Love Lisa" episode is hands-down the funniest combined Valentine's Day / Presidents Day episode of any TV show ever. Its centerpiece is a school play about former U.S. Presidents, including a classic little song about the "mediocre Presidents" -- "There's Taylor, there's Tyler, there's Fillmore and there's Hayes, there's William Henry Harrison ('I died in thirty days!')". And in the episode where Homer goes into space, he greets a James Taylor performance of "Fire and Rain" with the words, "Wow, former President James Taylor!" Having thought this episode was extremely hilarious during my formative years I pretty automatically assign James Taylor the "former President" label in my head every time I think of him.

Steelers Outside Linebacker James Harrison
Jack, in a nod to the Simpsons joke described above, has referred to Harrison more than once in emails or in gameday text messages as "former President James Harrison". That's all I have to go on here but, seriously, go find a clip of Harrison's Super Bowl interception return and watch it again. It just keeps getting better.

Former President George W. Bush
The man was a terrible President but I can honestly say that I've never been happier to see someone become a former President in my life, and hopefully never will be again.

* * * * *

That is all. Many happy return of the Presidents Day to all of you.

Friday, February 13, 2009

I have taken the plum images that were in that poem / And which you were probably saving for reading again

The New Yorker ran a poem last week by one Jane Hirshfield called French Horn. It doesn't strike me as the kind of poem Pete would like, but it's enough of an intersection anyway for a lunchbreak reading link.

I generally don't read poems they print in the New Yorker. I do like this one, though: it's got all the things I like in a poem. (Brevity; generous imagery; fleeting reference to a Mahler symphony.) The scene change left me with the image of the horn player and violist alone in a yard with the plum tree behind them, and then I had to go back and figure out when I was supposed to be imagining the orchestra. I tend to need some literalist handholding when reading poetry in general; I think it's part of why I don't ultimately read that much poetry.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And I Think of Roses, Roses

White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses:
György Ligeti: Musica Ricercata, mvt. I (1953) for piano
Ligeti: Six Bagatelles (1953) for woodwind quintet
Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata in D Major, op. 94 (1944) for flute and piano
Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto (1931)
Benjamin Britten: Canadian Carnival (1939) for orchestra
William Bolcom: Symphony No. 4 (1986) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra
Okay, nothing here has to do with roses until the Theodore Roethke setting in the second part of the Bolcom symphony. Still, it's a nice Valentine's Day image, especially when unwound into a sprawling, imagistic portrayal of the American landscape. Also, a William Bolcom–Joan Morris collaboration seems also appropriate for Valentine's Day.

The Britten piece is a pretty neat picture-postcard kind of work that seems to fly under the radar. Earlier thoughts on the Stravinsky Violin Concerto are here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

O Great Breakfast of Decimated Rainforests!

Who knows how long this burst of Pete-bothering-to-blog will last? But, as I've been ruminating over the continuing impact of The Omnivore's Dilemma on my eating habits, it seems like I might as well put it on the blog, if for no other reason then to document a not-so-common-these-days spate of Pete-being-earnest.

So, concerned with the amount of soy, suddenly, that I eat, and where the hell and what kind of monocultures it's coming from (apparently, much of the still-burgeoning soy industry, US-wise, is going on in the American South, so maybe not the whole year-long is my soy consumption in danger of decimating the Amazon (those giant snakes shouldn't have any reason to move their habitats!), I've made some changes to my diet.

1) No more frozen vegetarian novelty products (mostly here are Morningstar Farms' Buffalo Wings and Corn Dogs (though, I imagine I will have to splurge occasionally due to their overwhelming deliciousness).

2) I am embarking upon a rotation of non-dairy milks. Rather than always drinking soy milk, I will rotate, every purchase, between soy, rice, and almond milks. There's some diversity, right?

I'm still working on others, though they may take more time to develop, since, like, looking into localizing one's food consumption, especially when the bulk of one's staples are rice and beans, takes, like, way more work.

Monday, February 09, 2009

This Week in Creativity

This past weekend, operating under the auspices of the nearly ungoogleable miami poetry collective, I was amongst a group of many literature-minded friends who assembled a journal of our own work to give away (to sell for one cent) at a party in honor of local poet and professor to most of us, Denise Duhamel, who is just publishing her most recent book. Somehow, the drawing of the cover fell to me. I made several drafts, but this is the one we finally ended up with (if you want to read, like, the journal itself, let me know and I'll see what I can do):

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Adams for Four, &c.

Thawing out the post-Super Bowl blog commentary does (as Pete says) take some time, but life has continued apace in the meantime, free of the promise of unbelievable football occurrences though it may be, and for less than a week at this point, at that.

Right before the Super Bowl, actually, or rather two Thursdays ago, I ducked into NYC for the evening to catch the St. Lawrence String Quartet premiering a new, full-length John Adams string quartet at Juilliard. Titled with none of Adams's usual wit, the work goes by the name String Quartet, and it courses along for about a half-hour in a meandering manner similar to some of the single-movement orchestral works Adams has penned. The Quartet is actually in two movements, the first much longer than the second, but they aren't incredibly sharply distinguished in character, save for a surprisingly introspective conclusion arrived at right before the movement break.

Overall it's an enjoyable piece, with flashes of exceptional charm, often tossing off crisply rhythmic ideas in the first movement and then whimsically switching gears. Adams is very witty at times, and the lighter ensemble serves him well in these moments. At other times there's a muddier sound, like a symphonic concentrate; I wonder if it will improve with continued performance. (The St. Lawrence Quartet played well and with uncommon kinetic energy, including the occasional foot stomp and some worked-up contortions of posture during metrically elastic sections.) Adams writes very little chamber music, and you can hear the big ideas struggling to explode out of these thicker textures. The second movement had some bolder, Beethovenian vigor to it, slashing sometimes to a halt only to be rekindled, but I'm not convinced it carried itself more emphatically than the first movement. If the piece has a big flaw it's the dramatic tension sagging under the span of so much freeform music. The St. Lawrences will no doubt take the piece around enough to tighten it up some, though. I doubt it'll wash out as one of Adams's masterpieces, but I'd like to hear it again.

Earlier in the concert came a splendidly eerie rendition of Ingram Marshall's "Fog Tropes" and a fine performance of Lou Harrison's marvelously ingratiating "Varied Trio" (for violin, piano, and percussion, composed in the 1980s but new to me), full of peppy rhythms, Asian modes, percussive porcelain bowls, and some of the most generously sweet gamelan-inspired classical music I've heard. A couple of romantic inner movements could have used some more shapely violin playing, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a recent chamber work as warmhearted as this one.

The concert opener was hard to figure out, a violin-ensemble work by a young composer named Andrew Norman called Gran Turismo (titled after the video game, no less) that screamed "student work" and was written five years ago anyway, and could have been dropped from the long program without too many tears shed. Some shifting fluorescent chords being tossed around between players were interesting; most of the rest of the piece sounded like discarded bits of Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" soundtrack. Go figure.

All in all, the concert was certainly the most exciting event I watched last week that didn't involve someone intercepting something and returning it 100 yards for a touchdown.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Meditation, Mendelssohn, Miscellany

Go classical radio show go!
Gabriel Faure: Nocturne no. 13 in B minor (1921) for piano
Lukas Foss: ". . . and then the rocks on the mountains begin to shout" (1977–78) for a cappella choir
Andrzej Panufnik: Homage to Chopin (1949, arr. 1966) for flute and string orchestra
Frederic Chopin: Four Mazurkas, op. 24 (1834–35) for piano
Rebecca Clarke: Lullaby (1909) for viola and piano
Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor, op. 66 (1845)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony no. 1 (1800)
Lukas Foss in memoriam; that choral piece has the right meditative attitude, and is quite lovely, rather like a warmer, more spiritually grounded version of deconstructive vocal pieces by Berio and Stockhausen. Also, Felix Mendelssohn is two hundred years old! Classical people love anniversaries for some reason.

I haven't listened closely to the other discs in the Vänskä/Minnesota Beethoven symphony cycle, but this recent release with the 1st and 6th is excellent.

"Academic" Writing

Okay, just 'cause I'm still thinking about it, here's a short write-up, just of an example of my prose, when I'm explicitly trying not to be annoying in style (and, really, an example of the kind of thinking that I like to do, anyway) I wrote for poetry class about this poem:

William Carlos Williams - The Avenue of Poplars

Found at bee mp3 search engine

In the section of prose which follows the eighth poem in Spring and All, Williams writes “The only realism in art is of the imagination. It is only thus that the work escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation” (p. 111). This statement, already provocative, is made all the more so by the fact that images of nature and natural objects abound in the poems of Spring and All, especially when the reader makes sure to process these images in a way that is in line with Williams’s opinions towards the natural, the poetic, and the real. When reading a poem which contains a description of a natural setting (or any setting, for that matter), we should be concerned not with what was actually there (nor even that there even was an actual setting which Williams saw), but rather with how Williams imagined it. This is achieved, according to Williams, by noticing that poems are written with words, and words, when properly interpreted, link to the imagination of the writer as much as (if not more than) they do to what they depict. In a book that starts out intending to be haphazard—and achieving that haphazardness, by the final quarter of it—Williams’s thinking is actually quite lucid on these points. “That [words] move independently when set free is the mark of their value” (p. 149).

Though many of the poems in the book are quite musical or song-like, Williams prefers to see poetry, especially in its relation to imagination, as a dance, or play:

[Poetry] affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature… (p. 149-150)

Of course, this play or dance, while not just an imitation of nature, is also not entirely free. There is something fixed about the relationship between the word and the reality it describes, but using the imagination to make that relationship dynamic is the source, for Williams, of the energy of poetry, when “[words] are liberated from the usual quality of [specified meanings] by transposition into another medium, the imagination” (p. 150).

Thus, in Poem 24 (aka "The Avenue of Poplars"), when Williams describes a “wordless world,” the reader must immediately take note of this description, for it brings to the fore the very tensions which Williams has been working through in the prose of this book. “The leaves embrace / in the trees / it is a wordless / world / without personality” (p. 142). There is nothing spurious about this claim, as, surely, leaves in trees really don’t have words, but that very world is presented to us in words—the words of Williams’s imagination. What is particularly interesting, then, is the role that negation plays in Williams’s description of this world; again, he isn’t “holding a mirror up to nature,” but rather operating with his words in the opposite fashion, telling us what isn’t there rather than showing us what is. What we know about this world of the canopy we know through negation: it is “wordless,” “without personality,” the speaker “do[es] not seek a path,” the “kiss of leaves” is described by what it is not (“poison ivy / or nettle”), and the reader is assured that we “need look no further,” as the speaker “do[es] nothing unusual.” It is interesting to me that Williams never discusses negation in his prose, as it is clearly the device by which he achieves a poem which so closely falls in line with his argument. The power of poetry thus imagined is perhaps best embodied in the paradox of action of the speaker, as he simultaneously ascends and descends through the canopy. That this paradox is achieved, according to the logic of the poem, by the fact of the speaker doing something as humdrum as driving in his car and thinking about cave paintings is surely an example of Williams liberating words from their usual qualities. Though much of the poem is strange or paradoxical, when we agree with Williams that “the only realism in art is of the imagination,” we find that Poem No. 24 is about as real as it gets.

[Page citations refer to this book.]

Still Not Worried About Global Warming?

According to this video, Amazonian snakes used to be even bigger than they are now (what was with ancient gigantism anyway? Was there nerve tonic in the water?). Why were they so much bigger? Because, apparently, the size of tropical snakes is directly related to the warmth of the region where they live. It used to be way warmer there in the jungle, so the snakes were bigger. The math is pretty easy on this one, folks. If the utter collapse of our agricultural system doesn't kill us, it's gonna be the gigantic snakes.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

And Another Thing I Read...

Groundhog's Day having come and gone, and the football season now over (having ended as well as it could have), my as-of-late blog-angst, that we haven't really been blogging enough to maintain even our modest goal of mild interestendom, I am further motivated to, like, blog about other stuff. Which may involve recourse to blogging about things which I generally mostly hold off from doing; that is, blogging about, say, Literature. But, as I've already mentioned in recent weeks, basically all I do all week is read, no less than 8 hours a day. No kidding. Motherfucking Grad School, right there.

That being said, I did finish reading Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma yesterday, so thanks, Nate for gifting it to me for Xmas. Interesting reading, especially given that I'm already a vegetarian, and generally a snot about it when pressed (I would describe my own attitude as a vegetarian to be "laid back and nonjudgmental," which basically means that I don't really care to share my opinion about the stuff, and prefer just to default to joke-y answers to the meatlessness questions like "The moral highground must be maintained at all costs!" But, of course, it was and is an ethical decision for me, so it is nice to pick up some more fodder for the cause.). (Incidentally, since I haven't brought it up for a while, since I've also had to be writing more for in-class context this semester, I've been trying to wean myself back off of multiply-embedded parentheses, in favor of a broader application of dashes, though I do find it to be impossible not to state items parenthetically, even in papers that I have, like, turned in for a grade and stuff--though, clearly, still one of my favorite things to write about is the writing itself (of itself).)

So, what did I learn from reading Pollan's book? Eating industrially produced meat is disgusting and wrong. I already felt that way, but reading about feedlots reinforces that notion. Damn. Generally speaking, the state of most farming in this country is atrocious and rampantly destructive. Again, something I've more-or-less been aware of. But this leads to the biggest aspect of the book that I had to spend a lot of time thinking about, namely the modern vegetarian's problem of relying on monocultures of soy plants. There was, back in the Winter of 2007 a huge expose in National Geographic magazine about the soy highways in the Brazilian rainforest, which was about one of the most depressing things I've ever read (it passed around the break room of the Trader Joe's where I worked, depressing in sequence every co-worker that read it). Ever since then, I've been worried about how much of the soy I consume is arriving to my gut by way of devastated rainforest (and to be sure, I eat a shit-ton of soy products (though, since starting to read Omnivore's Dilemma I have cut back on novelty textured soy protein products (like Morningstar Buffalo Wings (so(y) delicious...)) (oh shit, I'm breaking my own above-mentioned attempt to de-parentheticalize my writing

(incidentally, a couple of weekends ago I went to a sequence of poetry events in Palm Beach, which capped off by a "slam" poet, who was about the most annoying a-hole man of a poet I've ever witnessed, who "read" a "poem" about how much he hates, as a teacher (I think the target audience of his spiel would be a conference of middle school teachers in central Jersey), that his "kids" [students] use, like, "like" and "um" so much, and his interpretation of why this sort of language behavior takes place is that people are taught nowadays to be insecure with their own ideas--this seems completely wrong to me, you know? I think any kind of historical look at the issue would find that humans have always used little gap-filling words conversationally, and that trying to come off as, I don't know, non-authoritarian, might actually be, like, a good thing. Remember that students, "kids," first and foremost are trying to be good students relative to their peers, and that means adopting the language habits of that community--douchebag teachers aren't necessarily in much of a position to make changes to their discourse (especially "teachers" with charismatic-white-male-with-a-ponytail ethoses) (Wow! This is a pretty pure digression here, as I have no idea at this point what it was that got me started on it (must've been something about the parentheticalizing... oh yeah, I think, maybe, the parentheses has to do with my own personal sense of my blogthenticity; that is, there's some kind of hierarchializing going on here too, in terms of the ideas, beyond the general stabbing-at-simultaneity reasoning that I usually give for my excessive parentheticalizing)).).

But Pollan's book reminds me that there are destructive monocultures of soy in, like, Iowa, so maybe I should be even more concerned about the modern version of vegetarianism that I practice, which is mainly identifiable for its reliance on fossil fuels for getting calories and nutrients to me. It's still better than being a meat-eater in the industrial system, but far from being good enough to be sufficient, in terms of being actually better for the planet. I had some sense of the problem with what Pollan calls the "Industrial Organic" market which has been blossoming through companies like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, since that shit really pissed me off when I worked at TJ's (incidentally, again (I know, I know...), I finally did step foot in a Whole Foods for the first time while I was in Manhattan over my Winter Break, though not for long, and only to a) check out the beer selection and b) wait for my friend to use their toilet; I did not buy anything). The basic fear is that something which is "better" winds up being seen as "good enough;" another good book to read on this topic is Curtis White's The Spirit of Disobedience wherein he talks very well about how the "spirit" of radical living is decimated as its ideas are transformed into commodities.

So I can kind of talk to myself about reconsidering my consumption of things like pre-washed bagged salads, and look into finding some local farmer's markets to deindustrialize my consumptive patterns, but I still won't eat meat (or fish) until I'm living someplace in the vicinity of one of the quasi-utopian farms that Pollan visits an example of in his book. And I have no problem with the carbon footprint on my ethically-traded teas and coffee. I'm not sure how actual it is, but I do see some amount of pattern between my intellectual habits and my habits as a consumer, but its quite difficult (as much as I wish that (my) poetry is "anti-capitalist") to actually become post-industrial as a consumer and anti-professional as an intellectual. There's just not that much of a market for it, and it's hard to believe that there ever will be.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Steeler Bowl '09

I'm not sure I would have guessed that the Super Bowl could be as exhilarating and emotionally exhausting as the AFC Championship game, but there you go: that and more. It really took until this morning for Holmes's game-winning catch to sink in, or to realize how spectacular it was. I can't clearly recall my mental state during Roethlisberger's last drive, at least till that defensive back slipped and Holmes got himself down to the 5.

Harrison's interception got me out of my seat, but in between the flag on the field (called against Arizona) and the total unbelievability of the hundred-yard runback I don't think I processed that excitement in real time, either. The Immaculate Reception of our generation, for sure.

And then on the other side of the coin, the near-total deflation of Fitzgerald's catch-and-run touchdown, coming after that safety -- where, for such a fleeting moment before the flag was obvious, it seemed that Holmes had the ball and a first down and everything was probably going to be all right.

I had over to my apartment the core group of Steeler game friends I've been watching with, plus several others. What a time. (And what a food surplus; pictured, right.) Celebratory photo below; that's Doug, Andrea, and Stu left to right, aside from myself.

It's completely crazy that this season would have ended in one of the most memorable Super Bowl victories of all time. And Mike Tomlin's speech when receiving the trophy -- the steadiness, intensity, the fiercely channeled emotion -- really hammered home how right he is for the Steelers. That and winning the Super Bowl in his second season.
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For somewhat less likely postgame commentary, read Bob Smizik on the offensive line, the weak link of the team that managed to stay just strong enough. Perhaps poignantly, that's also the part of the team most drastically to change before next season. Or perhaps not so poignantly. Draft's in April, right, and hopefully Tony Hills has been learning something in practice? Anyway, there's a neat portrait of the same theme in microcosm at Behind the Steel Curtain, my favorite of the Steelers blogs I can stop reading obsessively now.
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Watching Letterman right now, who's got Roethlisberger on a little later. His opening line: "How about this weather? . . . 38 and gloomy. Just like Kurt Warner." Zing!


What a baffling joyride of a game. Go Steelers!! What a season!


Hey, Steelers Win

Sunday, February 01, 2009

It's The Super Steelerio Bros. Super Bowl

It's dreamy! This is a dreamy Roethlisberger!
Notwithstanding the Post-Gazette's illustration this year of a mechanical Steeler Godzilla fighting a monstrous Raven, my favorite football-related graphic of theirs is this super-dreamy Ben Roethlisberger portrait, dating from their 2006 AFC Championship coverage, which looks like it was drawn on the inside cover of a twelve-year-old girl's Trapper Keeper with something like "Mrs. Stacey Roethlisberger" written in loopy cursive in the margins of all the pages. I can't properly express the tone of the P-G's coverage of the last Super Bowl run without using a word Jack once forbade me ever to use around him again (that word is "Roethlisboner") but the P-G's coverage of this year's playoffs has been more staid -- I believe because the team's postseason run seems less improbable; because Roethlisberger is no longer a young phenom; and because Big Ben's head, due to the combined effects of age / dozens of quarterback sacks / motorcycle accident, looks a lot less like the fanciful, mannishly pretty image above than like a big potato with a goatee on it.

At any rate, thanks to the customary two weeks of Super Hype there's nothing more that I want to read, say, or think about the game before its refreshingly early 3:30 Pacific time kickoff. I am excited. Go you Steelers.