Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 07

The Hickok chair, again.

Going everyday to a place which is self - identified as "work space" is a good mental discipline. John Steinbeck, who has rather fallen out of favor amongst the Kewl Kidz literary critics (probably because he wrote some awful tripe in an uncontemporaneous style--which is the kiss of death from critics, who will love awful tripe provided it's in the contemporaneous style), nevertheless wrote fascinatingly about his work patterns. For both East of Eden (I think, his greatest book, though not my favorite: that's reserved for the guilty pleasure of Sweet Thursday, his heartfelt apologia for his dead friend, the astonishing Buddhist oceanographer Ed Ricketts) and his unfinished The Acts and Legends of King Arthur, he maintained a parallel writing journal. The EofE journal was only published years after his death, but the Arthur journal was included in the posthumous publication--probably because the MS itself would have been too short. Steinbeck typically wrote these journal entries as letters, either to his editors and research assistants, or, in the case of EofE, to his sons. Eden was in some ways his most autobiographical book, though as he pointed out himself, virtually every novelist is writing semi-autobiographically (at least psychologically) all the time, and Eden's Cain-and-Abel theme, overlaid as a palimpsest on Steinbeck's own autobiographical myth, was an essential part of how he understood himself.

These are fascinating journals: not necessarily because they are full of great writing, but because they reveal the day-to-day psychological processes (sublime and banal) that are the actual warp-and-weft of the creative process. Steinbeck himself said that he wrote the journal entries as a "way of getting squirmed down into the chair" before he wrote the day's manuscript--and that is precisely why they are so interesting: you see him working his way from distraction into concentration.

"The Office" series is intended to do something of the same thing: it's a personal record of work attempted or accomplished, a trail of bread crumbs through the forest of a musicologist's professional research (including the banalities as well as the sublimities), and also--I hope--can provide some templates or tools of familiarization for those who are working out their own work methods.

And it helps me get squirmed down into the chair.

The texts, from bottom to top, are:

Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask

Lhamon, Raising Cain

(both the above cited in previous "Office" entries)

Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962)

Easily the earliest "modern" address to the topic of blackface minstrelsy, at a time when the topic was both taboo and misunderstood. Nathan brings to the investigation both very strong archival and primary-source skills, and also very solid music-analysis skills. Typically, and since Nathan, scholars have tended to rely upon either the first characteristic (Epstein, Lhamon) or upon critical approaches taken from other disciplines, especially theater history, semiotics, or American studies (Lott, Cockrell, Mahar). Since Nathan, there have been very few studies dealing with musical specifics and the larger implications of those specifics: an indicator of this is the degree to which much more recent scholars still reference Nathan's musical notes.

Michael D. Harris, Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Leftover from the article on blues in Southern film. Excellent (and beautifully produced) art-history and semiotics study of representations of blackness in European and Euro-American culture. Retained for the minstrelsy project because of the ways it illuminates visual and body languages, iconography, and the semiotics of visual representation. This is an example of the ways in which musicology that seeks to relate cultural context to musical content must draw upon analytical techniques, terminology, and/or methodologies from outside the realm of traditional musical analysis. The risk is always that we will borrow a tool (from anthropology, semiotics, or, in this case, iconography) with an incomplete understanding of its application and its limitations. It's impossible for a contemporary musicologist to be expert in as many different disciplines as s/he may find useful--so we have to be conscious of limitations and of our "amateur" status in those other disciplines.

But the advantage of such methodological borrowing, if pursued rigorously and carefully, is that we can avoid inventing the wheel: if there is already a sophisticated and effective analytical method for looking at the "iconography of the black body" in American popular culture, there is no need for us to invent an idiosyncratic, less-sophisticated repetition of it. This was brought home to me the first time I sat in a Performance Studies seminar with a revered mentor, the great scholar Dick Bauman: I felt as if my head was going to explode, because here was a discipline, drawing upon semiotics, drama theory, culture studies, folklore, and literary-criticism, whose applicability to the analysis of musical performance I could immediately see, but which had not yet (in 1989) been employed hardly at all by musicologists.

[lengthy interruption for a long conversation with colleague and Ph.D. candidate who, ironically, is dealing with just these issues of methodological borrowing]

Bob Carlin, The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007).

Have not had much chance to delve here--the text is very new--but Bob Carlin's work comes very highly recommended. A nice example of an entirely too-rare kind of scholarship: a player, and a non-academic, writing an important scholarly text on an underrepresented topic. The fruit of Carlin's decades of work on Sweeney and the banjo. However, a bit catholic in its coverage: separate chapters on "The Origins of Black Face Minstrelsy," Sweeney's biography, influence, impact upon banjo design, and so forth--but also more obscure relations: "British Minstrelsy After Sweeney,." "The Banjo in Australia," and so on.

Jacqui Malone, Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996)

A fine text on an underrepresented topic: the inherited and recurrent vocabularies of the body in the African-American tradition. Not many studies on this topic in African-American music scholarship, despite extensive new (last decade) scholarship on other dance vocabularies: Marshall and Jean Stearns's Jazz Dance is the other major A-A text I know. Malone's book is working some of the same turf as Lhamon's Raising Cain, tracing the recurrence of dances, terms, and body postures in A-A idioms since the 19th century. Malone is less strong on the roots of minstrelsy, but has a more extensive and detailed exegesis of the ubiquity of dance and the body in many A-A contexts outside conventional theatrical performance, especially in jazz dance, Motown choreography, and various hip-hop and black Greek step contexts.

Gerhard Kubik, Africa and the Blues (Greenwood MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1999)

Another unusual text on an underrepresented topic. Though it is a conventionality for scholars of A-A music to address the "African roots of the blues" (going all the way back to Samuel Charters), few of these texts have been written by authors who actually had expertise in African music. More commonly, it's been American scholars or fans of the blues who have "gone back" to Africa and tried to find reasonably obvious and self-evident connections. Kubik's is thus a rare and valuable study, one much better-informed about the regional variations of musical parameters and priorities. Haven't delved too much, and it's not directly relevant to the minstrelsy topic, but it's an essential foundation for the "aesthetic continuum" model that both Malone and Lhamon work from.

Playing when published: Andrew and Jim Baxter, "Forty Drops"

Late summer on the High Plains: morning cloud

The prevailing weather patterns here on the Llano Estacado (so-called the "Staked Plain" because, apocryphally, Coronado the Conquistador got lost here, and was only able to avoid walking in circles by leaving a trail of stakes behind him) are from WNW (out of Northern New Mexico and Colorado) or WSW (out of Southern New Mexico and the Texas Big Bend country). Both tend to mean lots of wind, lots of dust and dry heat, and thunderstorms when those prevailing westerly winds smack up against the damper air that bumps up against and flows up over the Caprock Escarpment that runs N-S about 40 miles east of town. So the prevailing weather pattern is from the west, blowing east, in a roughly clockwise direction.

But occasionally, especially during hurricane season in the Gulf, we'll get anomalous weather patterns--more frequently than they used to here, reputedly. When that happens, damp, warm weather blows out of the SE, up across the Hill Country, bumping against the Caprock, and (if fierce enough), flowing up across the Llano. Then the weather turns cooler, much damper, and much more prone to thunderstorms. And the weather patterns shifts, to a very unsettling and bizarre anti-clockwise direction. Sometimes it blows through, sometimes it just sits there and stews, but most frequently the westerlies prevail, and the damp weather burns off.

In such atypical situations, if you're from where I'm from, you walk out in the morning, feel the humidity on your skin, smell the quality of the air (dust-laden or dust-free), look at the clouds and the quality of the light, and think "storms coming." Because where I'm from, that's what these kinds of clouds mean. They can mean that here too--but more likely, it means "they're getting hammered in Houston and Galveston, and this is gonna burn off here."

But occasionally you get some nice light.

Playing when published: Dave Burland (Yorkshire), "The Blacksmith"

Monday, July 30, 2007

Fuzzy People 01

Experimenting with video function of Canon Powershot.

Caoilte, about 10 years old.

Maine Coon, picked up as a stray in September 1997 in a high-school parking lot in Bloomington, IN while exiting a symphony gig. He came and said hello as I ran in with my banjo, I patted him but said "I'm so sorry, I can't take you!" and dragged myself inside feeling guilty. Played the gig (Gershwin "Catfish Row" suite from Porgy & Bess, on banjo), ran out of the parking lot before the last piece in the concert so as to beat the crowd, and he was still waiting for me. Realized that if I didn't pick him and get him out of there, he was sure to get pancaked by the rush of Hoosiers driving out of the parking lot. Took him home, left him the van overnight (to avoid territorial disputes with resident orange Tabby), and we decided to keep him, after leafleting the neighborhood, announcements at shelter and on local community radio.

He's smart as a whip, loves indoor/outdoor status (he has a cat door), tends to stay pretty close to home but will pick ill-advised fights with cats who stray onto his turf, is an inveterate "marker" of the territorial boundaries (thankfully, mostly outside), and is a little bit too accomplished a pouncer and leaper for the safety of the local bird/mouse population. We don't have much trouble with infestations, but we do wind up burying his prey (which he will usually leave in a prominent place for us, as "tribute") more frequently than a Buddhist enjoys.

Thanks to Chipper Thompson for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Playing when published: Howlin' Wolf, "Highway Man", with the great Hubert Sumlin on guitar

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 06

Coffeeshop of the local yuppie (Texas-owned) grocery chain.

Lubbock's demographic is changing, despite the know-nothing head-in-the-sand "we're-still-a-small-town" imbecilic public postures and policies of its governing bodies (especially City Council, and to a lesser extent the mayor's office). They are still beholden to a Club for Growth ranching/mineral rights/real-estate development model, and can't get their brains around the fact that both the profile of the city's population, and the places the city needs to go in order to survive in a very different economic climate, are both very different than those described above.

I once wrote a painstaking report for a City arts advisory board, based upon Richard Florida's "Creative Class" model--essentially, arguing that good benchmarks for the economic viability of a city in the Information Age have to do not with development, the construction of stadia, or a rise in the cost of living, but rather with the receptivity of a community to those arts-aware, typically young, college-educated, patent-holding, information-processing, disposable-income-spending persons who make the street / neighborhood / loft / arts culture of Austin, San Fran, Ann Arbor, Cambridge, Amherst, Oxford, and other "hippie arts towns" both possible and lucrative.

These bozos want Austin's "Sixth Street" culture (really, now, just a dump for drunken frat kids and aggressive panhandlers) but they don't want to create welcome to the demographic that makes arts culture possible. Florida argues that college degrees-per-thousand, patents-per-thousand, and even presence/absence of a gay community, are all better indicators of the human and creative resources that make for economically-viable, livable 21st century cities, of both small-, medium-, and large-population size. [By the way, I had to demand my name be removed from the report, because the night before it was to be presented to the City Council, the committee chair called me and said "I had to edit your report--I took out all the references to the gays"; she claimed that the Council would instantly discard the report if such references were included. Flabbergasted, I told her to take my name off the report, and the Council discarded it anyway. I later resigned from the committee when in the monthly meeting the Chair categorically denied that she'd ever had that conversation with me.]

Our old friend Ben Bagby, probably the greatest solo performer of medieval music of the past century, gave us a thumbnail version of the same thing, when we were agonizing over whether to move to Lubbock in 2000. Ben, who's American-born but has lived in Europe (Cologne and Paris) ever since the '70s. He said to Dharmonia, "Look for a gay community. If they're visible, then the place will have an arts scene, decent restaurants, music or theatre, clubs--it'll be basically livable." It was good advice (though Lubbock's LGBTS scene is pretty much underground and persecuted, except for the relatively safe haven of the campus).

Anyway, this is the local yuppie/progressive grocery chain. Family-owned, Christian-identified, but "good Christians" the way that some Texans can be: e.g., they actually fuckin' put into practice the idea of "doing good in the world." They employ a lot of kids and retired folks, but there are always enough staff, the staff most always seem happy to be there, they have a clear holiday policy, closing on certain days specifically so that their staff can spend time with family, and so on.

When this place opened in 2001, Dharmonia, who was not yet working on campus, called me from the store on opening day, saying "You gotta get down here! They have a deli! And a salad bar! And a natural-foods section!" Even as recently as 7 years ago, those were all Major Developments, and indicative of this business's awareness, anyway, that the demographic was shifting: from a ranching, development, small-town demographic, to an Information Age demographic. And everything from their stock choices, to the combination of "Texas comfort foods" (fried chicken, biscuits-and-gravy, string beans with fried onions) and "healthy foods" (sushi, salads, blackened tofu) at the deli, to the very good artisan coffee in the coffeeshop, to the numerous family and domestic-skills events they offer free, reflects their awareness of the changing demographic.

This place is also the scene of the infamous Bob Knight/David Smith salad-throwing incident, that cost Smith his (spurious) credibility, demonstrated Knight's instantaneous chokehold on the University's Board of Regents, and added another chapter to the saga of administratively-enabled Knight tantrums.

Lubbock will never have a Whole Foods (another Austin-based corporation) until they pry loose the draconian "dry-county" liquor laws from the clutches of the restaurateurs and fundamentalist Christians, and re-written the laws so that WF can include the organic wines and beers that are part of their corporate model. But in the meantime, this ain't bad.

Actually a good place for lunch meetings: the food is quite varied, fresh, and cheap; coffee is excellent; there's easy and proximate parking (an essential part of any West Texas business meeting), and there' s almost never a wait.

And, in the meantime, the free wireless in the coffeeshop is a nice perk.

Playing when published: NRBQ, "Get Rhythm"

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Late summer on the High Plains: veggies

Peppers (jalapeno and bell)

Basil (for pesto)


Playing when published: Louis Jordan, "Caldonia"

Late summer on the High Plains: sunset

Late summer on the High Plains: Santa Fe sunsets at Texas Panhandle prices.

Playing when published: The Meters, "Trick Bag"

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 05 (+ bonus)

First things first. This is the view from the Hickok station, but bumped sideways to monopolize a 4-seater table on this slow Saturday at the coffeeshop--need more space today to spread out additional work.

The texts, all things out of my own library which I am revisiting for the minstrelsy project, are:

Allen, Robert G. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Very interesting, detailed, and insightful study by a theatre and American-culture specialist about the social, class, and gender implications of burlesque, and the very complicated layers of semiotic association which the genre represents in late-Victorian American culture. I'll never look at a lobster the same way again...

Lott, Eric. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fantastic work--all of Lott's work is--by an American Studies specialist. Very effective, deep, multi-faceted study of the way that minstrelsy embodied and enabled white, male, working-class critique of class issues in Jacksonian America.

Tawa, Nicholas E. High-Minded and Low-Down: Music in the Lives of Americans, 1800-1861. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000.

I studied with Nick Tawa at U Mass Boston in the 1980s, and didn't realize the treasure trove of primary-source information he carried in his head. It's only years later, as an American-music specialist, that I've come to realize how ground-breaking his books were: he was tilling the fields of American musical culture (at all social levels) before almost anyone was. His described and preferred research method was index cards, and the books read a little bit like that: more bibliography and source-study than analysis or interpretation, but invaluable as compendia of musical activity across social classes.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Rip Lhamon is an English professor, but has specialized in the theatrical and material culture aspects of minstrelsy. He's published several books (Jump Jim Crow is a fantastic resource of minstrel texts), but this one is both my favorite and his most far-reaching. Like a lot of American musicologists, Lhamon intuited that there are aspects of African-American performance aesthetics (garb, body vocabularies especially dance, terminology especially as regards expressive taste) which have been remarkably consistent and resilient through all the epochs of African-American impact on culture. This in itself is not a tremendous revelation, but the clarity and readability of Lhamon's prose, his obvious engagement with and love for the repertoires, and his very strong command of the earliest primary sources, make his linking of minstrelsy, vaudeville, "coon" shows, film, and MTV video especially immediate and compelling. Very moving.

Wondrich, David. Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot 1843-1924. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2003.

Like Strasbaugh, essentially a journalist's fan-letter to African-American popular culture, in Wondrich's case, black music from the 78 era. Very accessible, good for a general audience, but not providing much in the way of original insights (as opposed to original expression, which he's good with). Severely hamstrung by his lack of musical/technical knowledge or insight: that is not to say that someone writing on black music must have such knowledge--but lacking such knowledge makes it essentially impossible for Wondrich to talk about musical style traits. He tries to do so anyway, and is forced to coin his own idiosyncratic terms to describe musical phenomena (for example, in Wondrich's construction, "stomp" is a strong downbeat 4/4 emphasis, driving the straightforward dance grooves; while "swerve" in his construction is upbeat emphasis, hemiola, syncopation, and/or polyrhythm-polymeter. Of course these are essential characteristics for the discussion, but Wondrich expends unnecessary effort generating unique terms, which he employs inconsistently, and as a result distances his text from usability or interface with other analyses.

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977 (rev. 2003).

Standard and seminal text, based in primary source study (newspapers, plantation records, printers' bills, street literature, etc), on African-American musical contributions prior to 1861. First published 1977, when it was a rare resource for this material; lightly revised in 2003, without a great deal of new material, by which time it had been supplanted by other, more up-to-date, and more critical/analytical texts. However, it's a while since I've read it, and I have not re-read at all in light of the minstrelsy project. Very often, we'll see things upon re-reading texts which we missed during the first reading: the Epstein is no exception.

Bonus image: because the view from the Hickok chair gets a little repetitive (like so many things in academic research), I append a bonus image. This is the back room at the same coffeeshop--originally the small theatre where they showed the art-films in the '70s, I'm told--now converted into an events and concert space. This is the first place I heard "Celtic" music in Lubbock, 7 years ago: I was in town in May 2000 for my interview sequence, and on the last free morning, after obligations were done and it had been made remarkably clear to me that the committee wanted to hire me, I rented a car and drove around the region. I was pretty sure the offer would come and I knew I needed some kind of information to give to Dharmonia regarding whether we could possibly survive living in the Buckle of the Bible Belt.

I drove all over, scoping out neighborhoods, and all the way out to the "resort lake" community in a canyon east of town--I was fuckin' desperate! But there wasn't much that was convincing, so I drove back into town, and while heading up the main drag east of the campus, I heard Cathy Jordan of Dervish singing on the radio. I was very excited, pulled over, and ran into the nearest 7-11, saying to the counter kid "what're the call letters of the public radio station around 89 mhz?!?" Figured out it was the local public radio affiliate, that the program playing Dervish was locally produced but now airing on tape.

While in the coffee shop, I looked at the local excuse for an arts weekly, and was shocked and pleased to see that there was a listing for a "Celtic music session". Belatedly realized that said bi-monthly session was happening today, and that it was happening (finishing up) right now. Ran back to the car, drove like a bat out of a hell the few blocks to this coffeeshop, and sneaked into the back room, where there were a half-dozen people playing tunes out of loose-leaf binders: mostly song tunes and harp tunes.

Seven years later, Dharmonia and I own a house (the first we've ever owned) a block away, and the teaching session I founded in Indiana in 1993, and have taught in Lubbockl since 2000, is moving into a new home in this same back room.

One insight that growing older makes available is that the Big Wheel really does come full circle. I'm glad to be here.

To work!

Now playing when I hit "publish": Burning Spear, "Slavery Days"

Friday, July 27, 2007

Why sometimes you want a guy with a tie on your side...

Years ago I sat in musicology seminars with certain young people (well, younger than I, anyway) who had sussed out that one of the ways to be one of the Kewl Kids--e.g., "challenging young scholars," "AMS 50 recipients," "favored research assistant"--was to have figured out whatever was the most recent analytical/philosophical critique, learn its buzzwords, employ them around professors and in conference abstracts, and generally position yourself as a gadfly who could always trump somebody else's terminological post-modernism.

One such, a favorite of the professor in the seminar, was a former law student who, every time I turned around, would parrot the most recent critiques of everything that was wrong with our discipline, and whether it "wouldn't be more honest and ethical to get out of the profession." I finally got sick of this one day and said, "Yes, you should get out of the profession. Because the things that are wrong with professions get changed by those who have the stamina to stay in, fight the entrenchment of the way things are to shift them toward the way they could be, and be satisfied with glacial--but real--change." He was shocked at my "uncollegiality," though later several other seminar members thanked me for shutting the guy up.

There are Buddhist combat soldiers, too--who are willing to consciously take on the bad karm of killing, if by staying in the military they can mitigate by one iota the cruelty that those who like being soldiers are otherwise prone to. Similarly, I have a good, good friend who for many years ran the animal lab at a major research institution. It tore at his heart and I could never fathom how he could stand it, or why he would choose to. But now, 16 years after he first started pushing for it, that particular lab has completely ceased use of lab animals, in favor of simulcra. That's what real commitment does: it works to understand, first, what is, and uses Buddhist skilful means to shift what is a few millimeters toward what it could be.

Years ago my elder brother was picketed by a group of housing activists because, as a consultant, he had opposed the renewal of the existing laws governing rent-control in a major East Coast city. Unlike 99.9% of the suits who make such decisions, my brother was (a) certain of the accuracy of his analysis and of his suggestions for long-term net-positive change in housing policy, and (b) completely unafraid to argue his point. So he walked down from his top-floor office and talked with the picketers--never losing his temper, never becoming defensive, always completely in control of the comprehensive facts of the situation, and confident of the validity of his analysis. Most of those picketers walked away, if not convinced, at least willing to recognize that he wasn't the "Enemy."

Hence this: excerpt from a Linda Ellerbee-hosted documentary referencing my brother's global non-profit consultancy. This--this clarity, articulateness, competence, and absolute fuckin' bedrock dedication to real-world solutions driven both by a recognition of the fact that poverty is both unnecessary and wasteful, and that it can be addressed--is why sometimes you want a guy with a tie on your side.


Damn, I am proud of my brothers.

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 04

Back to the Hickok chair.

Pretty quiet in here today; lot of folks leaving town for post-Summer II holiday breaks.

The texts are, from top to bottom:

Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask
Strasbaugh, Black Like You
Sampson, Blacks in Blackface
(see yesterday's literature review)

Would have got farther through the Strasbaugh notes and transcription, but was waylaid by news of a new campus-wide initiative offering large grants-in-aid in support of:
  • "stimulat[ing] the generation of innovative new research efforts [demonstrating] academic merit, ingenuity and innovation"
  • "foster[ing] creativity"
  • "building large, multidisciplinary programs"
  • "introduc[ing] new, novel areas of academic activity"
Well, that's more-or-less got our name written all over it. So, at Boss's encouragement, Black Like You got suspended in favor of prose touting "innovation, ingenuity, innovation, creativity, multidisciplinarity, etc". In academia as in Watergate politics, we follow the money.

The banana is for potassium--welcome to your late '40s!

Back to work.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I think...

...we just jumped the shark. Please, Manjusri, let it be so:

War crimes (7.30.06)

War crimes (7.12.06)

War crimes (6.12.06)

War crimes (12.6.05)

War crimes (10.6.05)

Further evidence that animals are superior to humans

Or, at the very fuckin' least, that we should learn from them rather than abusing them: cat which senses imminent death. Sadly, neither the quoted doctors nor CNN author seem to get the full implications:

Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the sweet-faced, gray-and-white cat are so ill they probably don't know he's there, so patients aren't aware he's a harbinger of death. Most families are grateful for the advance warning, although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.No one's certain if Oscar's behavior is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Teno wonders if the cat notices telltale scents or reads something into the behavior of the nurses who raised him.

Well, that's bullshit right there, as elsewhere in the article empirical evidence shows that Oscar can assess nurses' inaccurate predictions of imminent decease, and can predict decease even when the nurses aren't able.

What nobody seems to have commented on is something that every pet owner who's lost an animal knows: that many domestic pets, and especially felines, know when their own decease is imminent, and will begin to purr loudly, just before they fail.

Animals know things that humans have forgotten. They can ease suffering and death. We should learn from them.

Not torture them.

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 03

[Early-morning triple-espresso vitamin-D edition]

First things first. Same neighborhood coffee shop.

I don't usually like working outside. Maybe it's partly because of being an Irish musician (a genus and species congenitally light-averse), or because of the potential distraction, or because, by 10am in W Texas it's already too warm to be easy to concentrate. Tough one today: when you're essentially off alcohol, two pints of microbrew at a going-away party the night before have enough hangover potential to make the early trip to the cross-trainer require more than usual effort.

View from outside table, west toward the park and the rich end of the neighborhood. There's a biorhythm to a neighborhood place like this: if you go every (or nearly every) day, you do start to notice other people's patterns, and how consistent they are: when the cops will come in for their takeaway espressos, when the retired arts types will come in for a leisurely read of USA Today, when (and for how long, and at what table) the poets will sit and transcribe from their notebooks or the artists sketch in theirs, when the off-for-the-summer high-school teachers and skateboarding punk-rockers will show up to sit outside and smoke American Spirits and play chess, when the alternative-waiters and family-subsidized artsy kids and coffee-swilling graduate students will come in, and where they'll sit, and what they'll say to each other.

That all sounds like I'm complaining or dispensing snark, and I'm really not: it's nice to live in a neighborhood in which there is at least a semblence of a street/arts culture and in which you can get to know names, faces, and personalities.

Tonight: weekly coffeehouse gig--this week blues solo, as the Usual Suspects are out of town.

On the docket for the day: going to take a 1- or 2-day pause from "100 Greats" posting: I'm not convinced that anything close one-a-day necessarily maintains quality--to say nothing of the fact that it's rather emotionally exhausting.

Instead, it'll be notes on these, for the long-term minstrelsy project:

Strasbaugh, John. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture. New York: Tarcher, 2006.

Not really a scholarly book, and not really offering tremendously new insights. He wants to argue that blackface, throughout all the epochs of American history (and in its earlier European Renaissance and medieval manifestations), cannot be simply understood as pure racist caricature. He ties blackface’s comedy, carnivalesque capacities, and culture-boundary-crossing to the larger issue of the “American experiment,” and to other creolizing impulses throughout our history. And, of course, he’s right: but it’s a point that has been made more meticulously and less derivatively already, by others, including especially Eric Lott and Rip Llamon.[1] In these respects, the book is rather like Wondrich’s Stomp and Swerve, another passionately-argued but analytically problematic text by a journalist which essentially takes others’ effective historical insights and popularizes them. However, it’s a quick read, he has a good range and a very accessible knack of expression. A good book to recommend to non-scholars who presume blackface is merely noxious caricature.


Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Blackface: A Source Book on Early Black Musical Shows. Metuchen NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Sampson’s dissertation (currently not available in general publication). Haven’t delved deeply yet. But it, despite its relatively dated nature, this text seems to represent a particularly meticulous and comprehensive sourcebook on primary materials; a good corollary to Llamon’s much more recent text on the same topic.[2]


Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Part of UIC’s excellent Music in American Life series, and one of the standard contemporary texts on minstrelsy. Very solid musicological scholarship, very detailed, beautifully (and expensively) produced. However, primarily deals with the pre-Civil War history of blackface troupes, and in particular the parodic European and light-classical sources of minstrel texts and theatrical entertainments. A useful source, but needs to be complemented and counterbalanced by Lott’s and Llamon’s work on street culture and African-American sources, and by Dale Cockrell’s seminal Demons of Disorder, on blackface’s earliest and ongoing thematic associations with carnival and class criticism.[3]

These join a number of other texts already informing the work.

[1] Specifically, Lhamon, Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip HopLove & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[2] Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Street Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[3] Cockrell. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Repug-Watch: Mitt's core constituency

"I don't think Hillary Clinton could get elected president of France with her platform. France is moving toward us," Romney told voters at a senior citizens center."
Jesus, you fucking empty suit. Is that the best you got? Do you think you're going to convince anybody except that small subset of senior citizens who don't follow the disaster of the last six years? They're onto your oligarchic bullshit too, you fuck.

And let it be said--I think the majority of seniors, outside that shrinking group who form the panicky core of the Fox audience, known goddamned well what a disaster the R's have been, and are going to make themselves heard to great effect in Nov 2008.

Only a punk like Romney would try to play on uninformed old people's fears, like some con-man selling fake aluminum siding door-to-door.

What a tool.

"100 Greats" #065 De Danann: The Mist-Covered Mountain

I remember the first Irish tune I learned, and where I learned it, and the instrument I learned it on, and the person I learned it from. It was the A mixolydian jig “Mac’s Fancy,” in a tiny 18th century clapboard house on a cobbled side street that ran up from the harbor in the town where I was born.
[tune #1176 in Alan Ng's great resource at www.irishtune.info]
The instrument was (I now realize) a beautiful, if worn, tobacco sunburst Gibson A-model mandolin (still, in my memory, the most wonderful mandolin I ever played—or maybe just the one that imprinted for me what that music should sound like).

I learned the tune in the old way, from someone showing me how it went: A--- S---, who was a classical guitarist, a trust-fund kid, and the resident of that little Colonial cabin: a tiny ship-style galley and a 10-foot-square “common room” on the main floor, and two cubbyhole-sized bedrooms above. He shared rent on that house with the great flamenco guitarist Cesar Cal, a five-foot-tall prodigy from Andalucia who taught me my first flamenco guitar and from whom I heard my first Paco de Lucia recordings (subject of a future “100 Greats” post). At the time, my friend Larry (fiddle, guitar, voice) and I were just beginning to learn to play traditional music right. I had moved back from Texas, sharing a house with Larry and his mom, an amateur flamenco dancer. I was cooking in a local restaurant (having bluffed my way into the job as line cook—the first person hired after the owner/chef/maitre-d and his hostess/bookkeeper fiancé), and was on the verge of discovering, with Larry, the Guitar Workshop.

I honestly can’t recall where I met A---—maybe Larry met him first, or I saw one of A---’s little classical-guitar restaurant gigs?—but I remember him as a thin, intense, WASP-looking guy with wispy blond hair, a prototypical social-activist alternative lifestyle, and, I realize now, an ability to dramatize the events of his own life. I certainly remember him describing the guitar-geeks’ response to his (at that time) unfashionable attempts to play classical guitar using thumb-under lute technique, and no nails, and the way he made that resistance seem like great Romantic drama. And the drama continued when I realized—only very belatedly and only after more histrionics—that the guy wanted to sleep with me, and I was too obtuse (and, at 20 and just moved back from Texas, too naïve) to realize it. Our friendship didn’t survive how angry he got at me for not understanding that.

But A--- taught me my first Irish tunes: a pair of jigs—tunes I still play and still teach to my own students, almost 30 years later: “Mac’s Fancy” and “The Rose in the Heather,” and for that I owe him a great debt. I don’t know if I ever heard recordings of these tunes until after I had been playing them for years, but I now know almost certainly where A--- got them: from the definitive De Danann record, released in that year of 1980, which he must have ordered from overseas: The Mist-Covered Mountain.

From its cover (a beautiful John Jay Audubon-style pastel painting of falcons, hares, and other fauna) to the staggering instrumental firepower and telepathic communication of the players contained therein (Frankie Gavin, Alec Finn, Johnny Ringo McDonagh, Charlie Piggott, and Jackie Daley), the marvelous rootsy sean nos of the Connemara singers it features, and the impeccable choices of repertoire, it’s absolutely definitive.

There’s a ferocity to this record: as my friend Roger quotes piper Eugene Lamb, “there’s great violence in that music.” Not that the music either assaults the listener or espouses violence, but rather that there is within this music, as in all great traditional music, a sense of the full range of the most fundamental and visceral human emotions: joy and sorrow, celebration and mourning, love and combat. It’s the fierce exultation with which Frankie Gavin, already at 24 a grizzled veteran of the road and the most direct heir to the dapper wildmen (Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran, Hugh Gillespie) who emigrated from Sligo to New York, whose records were the finest flower of Irish music’s Golden Age, and which Frankie imbibed literally at his father’s knee (a much later Frankie solo CD is titled, aptly, Fierce Traditional), led this band, soaring on the spring foundations of Alec Finn's bouzouki accompaniment.

The first time I visited Ireland, Dharmonia and I were wandering through Galway City on the morning after our concert at St Nicholas Church. We got buttonholed by a couple of Finnish early music fans who had been at the show and were anxious to express, in considerable detail, just how much they had enjoyed it. Ordinarily this would have been very welcome ego-candy, had I not looked over one Finn’s shoulder and seen a tall, long-white-curly-haired fellow carrying a plastic shopping bag out of the chemist’s on the other side of Quay Street. Apropos of nothing in the conversation I was actually part of—in fact, I don’t think I even heard the Finnish guy speaking—I said to Dharmonia “That’s Alec Finn.” I knew from my old buddy Roger that Alec lived in the region (actually, in a fucking castle: he had married a Lynch, one of the old “Fourteen Tribes” who had ruled Galway city ever since the Middle Ages), but I had hoped to have a little time to screw up my courage before introducing myself. I turned back to try to tactfully break off the conversation with the Finns, to talk to The Finn (sorry!), and by the time I looked again, Alec had disappeared.

Frankie Gavin would have been a genius no matter who was accompanying him, but in tandem with Alec’s bouzouki, and particularly in trio with the blazing C#/D accordion of Mairtin O Connor, the first box-player in De Dannan, and still (pace Jackie Daly, Aidan Coffey, and Conor Keane) the best fit for Frankie (though the set I heard Roger, Connie Dover, Paddy League, and sitter-in Frankie in freezing mud at the 2004 North Texas Irish Fest was first-runner-up—talk about a high-wire act!), he was completely essential to the revival. He joined the band, formed out of sessions in Hughes’s pub in the Galway gaeltacht of Spiddal, at the age of seventeen, and when you get those original players (Frankie, Alec, the mighty bodhranist Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, and their secret weapon, box/banjo-player Charlie Piggott) together, they can recount some wild stories of picking up Frankie, still in short pants, from the National School on a Thursday, driving halfway across the island for a hair-raising festival weekend, and dropping him off back at the school’s front-door, sleepless and hungover, on the Monday morning.

Some bands are great because of the way they not only support one another, but also because of the way they counter-balance one another, in terms of musicianship and personality. In these early DD records, in addition to the ferocious intensity, there’s just a sense of freedom: of people who were so strong as individual players, who had played together so much already in 1980, that there are no apparent boundaries to the music.

There’s the eponymous opening set of jigs, the first—my first tune learned from A—played by Alec (a lapsed Yorkshire bluesman) and Charlie on paired National tenor guitars—about as non-traditional an instrumentation, and about as pure-drop an interpretation, as you could hear in the 1970s folk bands—and which is lifted into the stratosphere by Frankie’s throaty fiddle entry on Junior Crehan's “Mist-Covered Mountain”;

The casual, herky-jerky swing of the “Cameronian/Doon” set, featuring Piggott’s vastly underrated banjo playing (Piggott was the best band banjo player in the revival—making everyone around him swing that much more) and Ringo’s blazing bones. Piggott’s understated by solid-as-a-rock banjo also gets a featured workhout on “The Cottage in the Grove,” before Frankie spins into the spookily- (and typically-) twisted line of yet-another untitled “Sean Ryan’s”;

Of the singing of Tom Phaidin Tom and Sean O Conaire, who step in to replace original vocalist Dolores Keane (after Keane, their best-suited singer, departed, they were never able to hold on to a vocalist for more than a couple of records), I can only quote my revered teacher Henry Glassie, in his magisterial Passing the Time of Ballymenone “When I hear the old men sing, I love Ireland even more.’” Whether the simple minor dance song “Seamaisin” or the narrative “Banks of the Nile,” the songs, featuring Phaidin and Seanin singing in the rootsiest of roots styles (you can barely distinguish, by accent, between the English- and the Irish-language texts) and the lads rambling around them, are a direct connection to the deepest taproots of the tradition. They were at the same time also powerfully influential: this record’s “Maire Mhor” (“Big Mary”) was the direct source for Dervish’s turbo-charged take on the same song on Live at Palma;

There’s the swing of the “Mulvihill’s/Dawn” set, where the nice tribute to the emigrant fiddler Martin Mulvihill makes a great, uplifting change into the multi-octave fiddle fireworks of the “Dawn”, before Jackie Daly steps to the fore with a set of his patented Sliabh Luachra polkas. Jackie was a magnificent player, but his Cork/Kerry sensibility was fundamentally at odds with Frankie’s old-school Sligo ornateness, they meet more successfully on the O’Carolan dedication “Mr O’Connor,” a trio of box, fiddle, and bouzouki, and of which trio a videotaped performance exists (gotta love the sweater-vests);

The record closes with a wonderful, quintessential set, in which, after a titanic version of the 4-part big jig “Langstrom’s Pony” (and I’m realizing now that there’s another one I learned from A--- all those years ago), they slip into the driving 4/4 of the minor reel “The Tap Room,” before Frankie blasts into the last tune of the last track on the record, the great Scottish reel “Lord Ramsey’s.”

At any Irish music session in the world, if you play traditional music, and regardless whether you know the local language and customs, if you know the tunes off this record, you have a universal musical language in common. If you can play these tunes, you can find people anywhere in the world with whom you can play them, because you and they got the tunes from the same place. This record is that definitive of a generation’s experience within the music.

Years later I did meet Alec, and Frankie too, in person while on staff at Zoukfest between 2002-04. One year, Alec and his Scots duet-partner Kevin McLeod were sharing one half of another little house, a casita occupied in its other half by my flute-playing buddy Steve and his wife. This was at a reconstructed US Cavalry outpost in the mountainous Kit Carson National Forest above Taos, NM. During the opening-day orientation, in addition to the standard-issue sanitation, dining hours, and recycling info, we’d also been given stringent instructions about fire-safety (which led to the sight of certain Attendees smoking hand-rolled cigarettes while driving their cars around the parking lot with the windows rolled up), and about responding to unexpected encounters with black bears. Short answer: don’t make eye contact, back up slowly, raise your arms above your head to create the impression of greater size (which led to the image of a crop of paranoid bouzouki players stumbling back drunk through the pine woods from midnight session with their arms over their heads), and I’ll leave for another day Steve’s story, shared with the timider of the city kids, warning them to avoid picnicking on the “bear-feeding station.”

We did have some tunes together, Alec, Kevin, myself, Grey Larsen, Mason Brown, and a few others, in one of those little casitas, and I experienced if only briefly the astonishing, pure-oxygen-breathing sensation of being accompanied by that inimitable (truly: no matter its simplicity, no one has ever been able to replicate the telepathic intuition of Alec’s accompaniment) bouzouki playing.

But at another iteration, several years before and again while listening to Frankie and Alec play, I had a bit (OK, more than a bit) of an emotional meltdown that week, possibly but only partly maybe brought on by altitude sickness, which I’ve since learned can play hell on your emotional state. It comes into this story in a couple of ways (see also this Zoukfest Diary post about such meltdowns and why I think they occur). Though I managed to avoid acting out, it wasn’t like everybody around me didn’t know something was going on with me. Among whatever other factors having to do with expectations, “castles in the air,” and emotional ambiguity played into this, one I could identify was the old, old personal trope of what Dharmonia calls the “I sucks”—that is, being so attached to an egocentric equation between display of one’s artistic ability and one’s sense of self-worth that one is virtually paralyzed. There were, once again, people around me who were better musicians than I, and a mark of the “I sucks” is an inability to recognize that, in such situations, nobody except yourself cares who’s better.

This also why a bad self-image is a neurotic double-visioned chimera: it is simultaneously too negative and too positive, simultaneously too self-derogating and too self-absorbed. It’s the disappear-up-your-own-asshole obsession that the old Yankees I grew up with would call “fulla yerself” and the old Buddhists I admired would react to with a blow from a bamboo stick.

In the event, I got both, in a most unexpected situation and from a most unexpected source: one night about 3am, in the sprawling old adobe 18th-century mission belonging to Chipper Thompson, who was kindly housing a whole raft of Zoukfest characters during the week. I had a conversation with my musical baby-sister Jessica, who had been a fiddle student in my slow sessions in Bloomington, had gotten very good very quickly and moved back to Chicago to take part in its top-notch scene, but had come down to Taos for the festival hang. Over the course of a rambling conversation, Jessica—a no-bullshit Chicagoan—had said, in essence, “What the hell is the matter with you this week?” Being called on my psycho-drama forced me to cough up an honest answer, which was that I was intimidated and feeling lousy about my own skills (God, the self-absorption of the neurotic baby-boomer). And she said, matter-of-factly, “Maybe you try to play too many different kinds of music.”

Bear in mind that she was a good twenty years younger than I, and that I had been a teacher of hers, and of other such young people, damned near as long as she’d been alive. My instantaneous reaction was: Where the hell did this child get off telling me why I didn’t play the way I wanted to, and where the HELL DID SHE GET OFF BEING RIGHT?!?

Because of course that’s what can happen when an accurate insight comes straight at you, no matter the source: it can cut through your bullshit emotional defenses. I instantly knew that she was right, and that my attempt to be a top-notch player not only of Irish trad music, and Mississippi Delta blues, but also bebop, and Near Eastern music, and Zulu music, and Mande music, and medieval song, and Christ knows what else, was not only unrealistic and ill-founded, but was also in fact driven by a kind of hubris. The people I admired had spent whole lives in one of those musics becoming virtuosi of the kind I wanted to be; where the hell did I get off either trying to be, or agonizing over failing to succeed at being, a badass in all of them?

It was sobering. She was my student, and years younger than I, and was experiencing some of her own emotional meltdowns, but goddamned if she wasn't wiser than I, at this particular issue, and goddamned if she wasn’t right. My mood—my week-long brooding funk—snapped in that moment.

I spent the next two days thinking about the implications, of both resignation and inspiration, behind her insight. Somehow I was ready to hear it, or her no-bullshit Chicago directness cut through my interior movie. I made a commitment, of the sort that are usually ill-advised to be snap decisions, that I would dedicate the next several years learning to play one music very well. And damned if it didn’t work, then and later: I recovered enough to be able to relate to other human beings on that last weekend (and to thank Mason Brown for driving six hours round-trip from Taos to Albuquerque to deliver Jessica to her 7am flight after the closing night’s sessions), and to better take in what the weekend's music and companionship still offered.

In another year, by which time I’d gotten my head straight as per Jessica’s dictum, the linchpin moment was a set of tunes in the lobby of the Taos Inn (“Taos’s Living Room,” to hear their advertising tell it, full of the preening artsy millionaires who drink there and the starving Taos artists who work there), played by my Coyotebanjo fiddle cohort Randal Bays, Alec on bouzouki, and my young fiddle student Thomas, over from Lubbock for the week, and at 16 making a hell of an impression of the grizzled vets, as he would later do to James Kelly, Brendan Larrissey, and the grizzled vets in the pubs of Sligo, Roscommon, and Galway. Randal, Thomas's teacher that week, sat with eyes closed, as Thomas played a tune for him with Alec's accompaniment. And for just that few minutes, I saw three generations from two continents, and the bond the tradition had created between them, and the strength, resilience, and century-spanning sanity of that union.

It was a long way from that little house on the granite bluffs above the harbor of my home town, to the adobe casita in the mountains above Taos, but when finally, after decades, I heard Frankie and Alec play together live the first Irish tunes I ever learned, and Randal and Thomas and Alec teaching tunes to one another, it didn’t, in light of the tradition, feel like hardly any time at all.

These poems came out of those experiences. I’ll dedicate them, here, to Jessica, and to Thomas, but also Lauren and Laura and Corey and Jacob and Elanor and Patrick and Kelli and Matt and Genny and Lawrence and Susan and Matthew and Linda and the John Waldron Ceili Band and the Celtic Ensemble and all the hundreds of other youngsters, down through the decades, for whom I’ve been privileged to be a (flawed, imperfect, ego-centric, but I swear to God good-intentioned) conduit to the tradition.

I am grateful for all they’ve taught me.


Spark flies in the dimlit pub.

Babble of voices, clink of glasses.

Cigarette smoke, damp wood, old beer.

Lamplight limns backlit cornsilk hair;

flashes on bare dancing downy arm.

Fiddler plays on.

--cjs, for Jessica Z, 8/19/01

Two Fiddlers

Old man and young,

Intent, hunched forward,

Eyes half-lidded,

Ear cocked to the fiddle’s belly,

And the newest tune.

While around them swirls the crowd

Clatter of glasses, skirl of talk,

A few faint tendrils of smoke,

And time stops.

No moment but the present,

As the tradition gives,

and gives back.

---For Thomas and Randal Bays, at ZoukFest, 9.15.04, cjs

Repug-Watch: Comin' into your grille, Rudy

LowerManhattanite lays an old-school New York ass-whipping on "America's Mayor", "Mr 9/11" (only a hero if you weren't from New York and didn't know what a vengeful authoritarian fascist asshole Giuliani has always been):

...he'd screwed over soooooo many people in his clambering to the top, that he was in effect standing on the still-warm bodies of those he'd used, and then callously discarded. Firefighters, educators, law-enforcement people, media folk, 9-11 survivors, and yes...his own ex-wife and kids. "Death of a thousand cuts" was the phrase that was thrown around as it seemed the long knives were coming out for Rudy. There was no special insight involved in sussing out what was coming not-so-far down the pike. If you lived in New York City, read the papers, or watched the news, knew a municipal union member, or quite simply...was Black, you knew all too well about Giuliani's dirt-doing, and that certain interested folks were looking to shank him pretty badly.
It's brilliant, scabrous, brutal, and hilarious. And Giuliani deserves it.

I remember when he was US Attorney, and then became Mayor, and I remember how he reacted everytime his cops rammed a broomstick up some guy's ass, or poured 41 slugs into an innocent man in his mother's doorway (see Springsteen's brilliant song "41 Shots", which got him instantly hung in effigy by the NYC cops who should know how much the Boss stands for them), or blew away some guy the cops were trying to buy crack from: in every one of those cases Giuliani blamed the victim, defended the cops, and screwed the public.

That's what he does. He'd have his chauffeur back a limo over his own mother for a nickel, or the Republican nomination.

And he's the front-runner. Ethics much, R's?

Meeting, exceeding, far-exceeding expectations

Originated in a comment thread over on Dean Dad:


I would agree with several posters who have commented that a negative performance review or promotion result should not come as a complete surprise. If it surprises the candidate's immediate supervisors, then those supervisors, in my view, have been negligent in maintaining some awareness of--and responses to--the candidate's record of productivity and effectiveness. If a similarly negative result surprises the candidate, then s/he has been negligent in the pragmatics of self-assessment and "timely progress toward promotion".

We anticipate that undergraduate students may not be aware of, or sensitive to, the specifics of self-assessment, and so we provide frequent benchmarks, feedback, grades, models, mentoring, etc. I would certainly be unhappy if a new hire, a 3rd-year review, or a tenure candidate was anywhere near as naive--I would argue that part of professional competence on the part of a candidate is being able to assess his/her ratio of success, just as it is part of the supervisor's professional competence, as several have said, to provide tools of assessment for the candidate.

Something I have not yet seen in the comments, however, is something I have taken to include in all my own mentoring, both in-house and remote, at both the graduate - student and the not - yet - tenured professional levels. That is, simply put, the candidate's responsibility to be effective, approachable, collegial, advocate for his/her teaching, service, and creative activity. In the world of academia, almost no-one has time to keep up with colleagues' achievements in a consistent or informed way: not their awards, their new creative works, their grants won, their students' accomplishments. We are all simply too busy to keep track of our colleagues' professional development, no matter how much we might wish to. Yet it is essential, for our own individual professional advancement, that colleagues (on tenure, promotion, and budget committees, for example) should be aware of our accomplishments.

This means that each candidate must take time to develop skills at conveying his/her achievements. There are a lot of different ways to do this, and many are even tactful and un - self - aggrandizing. In mentoring, I make sure to talk about, assist with, and demonstrate such "outreach to colleagues" (examples of how here) I have found it not only fosters a much friendlier collegial atmosphere, but also makes it much easier for committee members and superiors to arrive at accurate, well-informed, and positive evaluations. YMMV

"The Office" (Workstation Series) 02

First things first. Same neighborhood coffee shop as #o1. Dharmonia and I live in one of the only walking neighborhoods in the whole city (Walkscore ranking of 66/100; see link), and this place, a former indie-film cinema, is close and has good coffee. And, miracle of miracles, they've got an acoustically-decent back room with which they're pretty generous. It's a pleasure giving 'em business.

View from a back-row table (call it the "Hickok syndrome": always prefer to sit with my back to a wall.

On the docket for the day: accordion article, blues-in-film article, both out the door. Another "100 Greats" post would be good, and I need to keep plugging away on the Antebellum minstrelsy project.

Get to work!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"100 Greats" #064: Michel Legrand/David Munrow: The Three Musketeers

The origin of the word “romantic” is in roman, an Old French word meaning, simply “something written in the popular language” (Columbia Dictionary). In the Middle Ages, it referred to everything from the narrative Poema del mio Cid to the Breton/Cornish stories of Tristan & Iseult and the French chansons de geste of Roland and Roncevalles. The word was debased by its association with an 18th/19th century literary/artistic (and later musical) movement which built from the archetype of Goethe’s seminal Faust, and the intoxicating empirical method of the Enlightenment, to sculpt a model of artistic creativity which fetishized individuality, autobiography, and the Hero’s iconoclastic journey. It led to a lot of great music with contemptible or egocentric, and often remarkably bourgeois programmatic motives (see Berlioz, Wagner, Schumann, Richard Strauss, et al).

But originally, despite the way it was later appropriated by higher classes as “art,” in the medieval vernacular, roman simply meant tell me a story. And a story that could build from well-loved archetypes (see Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Masks of God), particularly one which understood that human beings have a visceral desire to try to make sense of the joy and the tragedy of existence, accrued all the additional power of instinctive familiarity. So a popular artform, in a vernacular language, that built upon archetypes to tell a story of joy and of loss, could be a pretty fuckin’ powerful artform. And music that could do the same could be similarly powerful.

This was the great insight of nineteenth-century music: that instrumental music could have both an experiential/emotional and a narrative force, and that the two could be synthesized to create powerful musical storytelling: of the pastoral (Beethoven Six), the defiant (Beethoven Five), or of sorrow and acceptance (Mahler's Lied von der Erde). It’s also the insight that drove the invention of opera, a genre responsible for some of the greatest achievements (Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress) and most beautiful yet banal self-indulgences (say, for example, most of Strauss’s oeuvre) in the history of Western “art” music. Musical narrative is powerful.

Though I diss the 19th-century Romantics, it’s not because I think the music is bad. In fact, the music is great—it’s just that, in some of its most beautiful manifestations, it’s too often tied to this dumb-ass, bizarrely mundane and middle-class philosophy of gimcrack “heroism.” That egocentric self-obsession, which reached its apotheosis in the “total arts works” of that great composer (and “bit of a crook,” to quote Robertson Davies) Richard Wagner, and which Mahler was both too smart and too much of a Viennese outsider to buy-into unqualifiedly, was what Debussy, Stravinsky, and the underrated and misunderstood genius Erik Satie (whose Parade is the subject of an upcoming “100 Greats” post) were all reacting against.

At the end of the nineteenth century, with its long-overdue dismantlement, which had been led by the French impressionists, the Italian Futurists, and the general realization (so obvious that even composers, a notoriously cosseted, out-of-touch, and politically-naïve bunch could see it) that Things—empires, economic systems, artistic philosophies, "civilized" war—were ending, the Romantic narrative impulse in orchestral music moved out of the concert hall. Assaulted by the intentional “barbarians-over-the-walls” ethos of Primitivism (Le Sacre du printemps, Bartok’s Allegro barbaro, and Ellington’s “jungle music” being three exemplars), the simple-minded proto-Fascist utopianism of the Italian Futurists (Marinetti, Russolo, later Varese), and the charge of “anything but those damned Germans” nationalists from all around the circumference of Europe (everyone from Bartok and Stravinsky, again, to Vaughan Williams, De Falla, Sibelius, Ives, and on and on), conventional orchestral Romanticism was largely banished from the new-music concert hall. And not before time, in my opinion.But, one place that the neo-Romantic narrative instrumental impulse went was the most logical, yet critically undervalued, place in the world: to the arenas of live music for cinema, and, eventually, the film soundtrack.

The late ‘20s were a fantastic time in the history of film music, because the most traditional, conventional, “popular”, and “experimental” musics were all jostling one another for space in the “moving-picture halls” (mostly, converted vaudeville theatres). Chaplin wrote music for his own silent classics, organists and pianists all over North America improvised from a grab-bag of late-19th-century light classics, in Northern Ireland the great traditional fiddler Neillidh Boyle was renowned for the train imitations he improvised to Edison shorts projected on the walls of Donegal barns, and a whole generation of Central and Eastern European composers, trained in the salons and conservatories of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, fled Europe's Great Depression and the rise of fascist governments to come to America, where many of them found work on the recording stages of the great Hollywood orchestras. This is how, and where, and when, late-Romantic musical narrative techniques were adapted to realize the mature and eventually predominant form of movie music.

And that makes perfect sense: late 19th-century orchestral techniques had used quotation, allusion, and imitation so extensively to tell Romantic and nationalist “hero-tales” on the concert stages of Mittel-Europ that those techniques had become their own semiotic language: strings for pathos, brass fanfares for heroism, march rhythms for martial valor, synthetic and minor modes for “exotica,” and so on. It was a language that early cinema audiences recognized and it helped to tell the story in those classic Hollywood films (a separate tale, for another day, is that of the fantastic but ultimately marginalized experiments with avant-garde music and Dadaist, Surrealist, or Expressionist film). In film music, the egocentric autobiographical focus of the late-19th-century (typically German) tone poem was shifted, to the more modest, more accurately “romantic,” and more legitimately profound goal of telling the fuckin’ story.

I first encountered the fantastic Michel Legrand and (uncredited) David Munrow soundtrack collaboration for Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers at the age of 15, in the summer of 1974, on a visit to England and Scotland. It was the first time I ever traveled overseas, the first time I ever traveled long distances without parental supervision, the first time I’d ever been to Britain. I traveled with my friend Larry, my oldest (literally: we met in kindergarten) musical friend, and I learned a lot about traveling, about relating to people, and about the stresses that the combination of those two activities can bring to bear, especially on two out-of-their-element 15-year-old adolescent males: we almost came to blows in our Edinburgh youth hostel. But in the event: we chose not to swing at each other: we got over it, and we learned that a friendship can survive and even be strengthened.

We traveled by 3rd class rail—this usually meant standing up: I still remember the ride from Edinburgh to Manchester, standing on the jostling open platform between carriages, playing fiddle/harmonica duets. We drove through the Lake District, magnificent views and precipitous 1-in-3 grades, in a right-hand-drive Ford Capri, white-knuckled as the driver swerved from one side of the narrow macadam roads to the other. We rode a bus to the shores of Loch Ness, we saw a ghoul in a little churchyard at Great Budworth in Cheshire (since corroborated by independent observers) and we were taken for 30 quid apiece by a con-man in Trafalgar Square.

I had the first (and still the hottest) curry I’ve ever had—to this day, in a curry house, I know to say “Hot—but not London hot!” I saw the only film ever made from George MacDonald Fraser’s fantastic “Flashman” series, and read the first of the books in that series (a literary encounter that would transform my sense of what the craft of history could accomplish), and the Young Vic’s revival production of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in London on that same trip. And I saw Lester's The Three Musketeers.

So to my experience of this film and its score. It’s an astonishing, seemingly-chance concatenation of fantastically compatible, highly idiosyncratic artistic talents: not only Legrand, who’s probably better-known for the score to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, plus hundreds of Hollywood films, rather than this British/Spanish production; but also Richard Lester, who directed the great A Hard Day’s Night and the more-successful but less-funny Help! for the Beatles, and who never attained to the same heights of genius as in the Musketeers films; George McDonald Fraser, author of the “Flashman” series, but the mood and character of whose screenplay, when matched with Lester’s comic Altman-esque pratfalls and cross-conversations, is still a textbook example of how “old” Hollywood could combine both fantastic story-telling and credible historical accuracy.

The casting is coincidentally impeccable: the ageless Michael York, then in his 30s but utterly believable as the rube-from-the-sticks youngster hero D’Artagnan; the great Frank Finley, creating a wonderfully apposite and over-the-top version of the speechifying blowhard Porthos; pretty Richard Chamberlain as Aramis the priestly lady’s man. And Oliver Reed playing the role he was born to play, the brooding, frightening tragic hero Athos. Reed had been magnificent—dark, terrifying, and charismatic—as Bill Sikes in the 1968 film musical Oliver (which had also featured Jack Dawkins (RIP) as the Artful Dodger, Ron Moody as Fagin, and Shari Wallace’s heartbreaking Nancy), but his Athos, the nom de tragedie of the aptly-named Comte de la Fére, caught the ferocity, nobility, and sorrow at the heart of the character: as Dharmonia said, it didn’t matter how youthful York looked, or how decorative Chamberlain was—Reed was the one who made the women squirm. It’s also one of the best and most extensive roles for Raquel Welch, spectacular chest well to the fore, as a surprisingly effective Constance, love interest of York’s D’Artagnan (though this is the one place in which the movie is a bit mean-spirited, portraying Welch’s beauty as a ditz prone to pratfalls and confusion).

The cast of villains is equally great, equally resonant of the layers of cinematic associations which the individual actors would have evoked: the great Christopher Lee as the meticulous assassin Rochefort; perhaps the only good acting job Charlton Heston ever did, his shockingly persuasive, ironic, suave, and patrician Cardinal Richelieu; Fay Dunaway as the heartless murderers Madame de Winter (looking as perfect, and as cold, as a porcelain miniature—or perhaps an enameled dagger).

It’s a marvelously comic film, which in fact is better than the book upon which it is based (same holds true, for example, of Coppola’s Godfathers I & II): Dumas' Mousquetaires was published in the 1840s, when Schubert was already dead, Berlioz had descended from the heights of the Sinfonie fantastique and was devolving into a mean-spirited middle-aged newspaper critic, and Paris still believed in the bullshit charlatanism of Romantic egocentricity. But the film takes off from the great story told in the book, and builds backward toward an historical awareness of how people might dressed, talked, fought, eaten, farted, worked, loved, and died in the 17th century. As a story, it owes a lot more to the folk-tales and war-stories upon which Dumas drew, to the psychological acuity of contemporaneous Altman, and to the wisecracking period humor of the (deceptively accurate) Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In addition to the very credible comedy of the leads, it also features the talents of the great Shakespearian buffoon Roy Kinnear as the Sancho-Panza-esque Planchet, and the inimitable loony genius—channeling at least 7 centuries of Punch-and-Judy cuckolds—Spike Milligan as Constance’s craven husband Bonacieux.

The serendipity continued behind the scenes: crew include the great fight director William Hobbs, who also did the masterful comic combat sequences in Shakespeare in Love , Depardieu’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Ladyhawke, Royal Flash (another Lester/Fraser/Oliver Reed collaboration), and the definitive edged-weapon film The Duellists—the only film able to give The Seven Samurai and the later The Two Towers a run for their money, and one of the few films I’ll still watch by Ridley Scott, whose pathetic sub-Victor-David-Hansonian historical revisionism betrayed the real nobility, courage, and self-sacrifice in the True Story of Black Hawk Down in favor of cheap triumphalism.

For Three Musketeers, Hobbs’s fight sequences manage the difficult filmic task of being both wonderfully visual and viscerally plausible. The actors did almost all their own swordplay, and there were multiple contusions, concussions, and broken bones, and watching it, you believed it, particularly Finley's flowery pratfalls, York's yokel agility, and Reed's looming ferocity—I’m sure this same lot would never risk their Hollywood hides like that again. That serendipity also involved some truly bizarre random notes, as well: the sailing sequences were coordinated by Dublin-born Mike Hoare, the notorious ex-mercenary “Mad Mike” who had led paid soldiers in the African colonial wars of Katanga, the Congo, and Biafra (and 4 years after this, was behind the absurd attempt to led an armed rebellion in the Seychelles Islands. Of all places)—London in the early ‘70s was a very strange place.

But really, the unsung hero of this soundtrack is the brilliant, tragic genius David Munrow, who helped found London's modern revival of historical winds-playing, wrote one of the earliest and still one of the best books on historical organology (Instruments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance), collaborated with British folkies like the Young Tradition and Shirley Collins, hosted series on the BBC, and released more than fifty LP’s of historical repertoire, as well as supplying period music for this film—and who took his own life just two years later.

Between them, Legrand and Munrow present a textbook example of the expressive and narrative capacities of film music, drawing on both old-school Hollywood and new-school historical performance in service of telling the story.

The LP is long out of print and has not (I don’t believe) ever been released on CD, but it can be heard on the excellent DVD reissue of the two films, and Legrand has released a short orchestral suite based on just a few of the key themes:

The magnificent, pounding minor-key fanfare for low winds and strings and which serves as underscore for the opening credits, a wonderful back-lit sequence catching swordsmen (later revealed to be D’Artagnan and his father, sparring) in slow-motion silhouette as they thrust, parry, and riposte, and which beautifully prefigures the life-and-death staggering, brutal fatalism of the decades-long combat in 1977's The Duellists;

The beautiful recurrent 2/4 allegro theme for high winds, celeste, and strings, which simultaneously tropes all those heroic sequences in earlier Hollywood films, but also whose rhythms and modal inflections manage to evoke both the pounding of horses’ feet and the drone-based folk-music textures of the French rigaudon;

The great call-and-response theme, for high winds versus running strings, and underscored by kettledrums, that accompanied battle scenes, with a lyric secondary theme;

Equally wonderful, though lacking from the suite, and sadly and criminally uncredited on the original film, are the wonderful, grainy, funky cues and other bits of miscellaneous entra’acte music which David Munrow’s wind players supplied: to scenes of markets, nuns hanging laundry, dyers coloring cloth (and serving as unwilling witnesses to a great, slapstick combat between Musketeers and Cardinals’ Guards, most of whom wind up doused in indigo or red before the end), and all the other scenes that served not just to advance the story, but rather to convey the feel, the sound, and even the smell of 17th century France. Munrow knew what the period sounded like, and he made me know too: in hindsight, this might be the earliest extensive listening to historical instruments I’d ever encountered.

This is another of the records I discovered amongst the racks of battered and worn LP’s in my home town library’s media collection, a place I visited religiously between the ages of about 10 and 16. I found this disc (along with the great National Geographic’s Songs and Sounds of the Sea), just after getting back from England, and I am quite sure that, if were still there, the old blue-lined “Borrowers” index card would still show my signature occurring more frequently than any other.

I had never sat down and listened to film music, and I had not really noticed the music in the experience of watching the film in London, but as I played that battered LP, which I came to know so well that I could even tell when and where the nicks, scratches, and skips would occur (and could anticipate where to jog the tone-arm ahead to minimize those latter), I began to get a grasp of the narrative capacities of instrumental music. It wasn’t just that I had loved the film (hell, at age 15, I wanted to be Reed-as-Athos, and cultivated a generally-unsuccessful aura of brooding tragedy), or that I could associate the specific musical cues with scenes I had enjoyed.

It was more that the Legrand/Munrow score demonstrated to me, in the most immediate, intuitive, and visceral way possible, that instrumental music, especially if allied with words, could both tell a story and evoke much more complex, individual and transformative emotional responses to that story than could the words or actions alone. And, that the music of a period could be as evocative of that period as any other cultural expression.

It’s an old, old realization, of course, and, although the Romantics got confused and lost their way in the tangled self-referential thickets of Individualist egocentric autobiography, the insight goes back in the Western tradition, past Strauss and Wagner, to Weber, to Mozart, to Gluck, to Monteverdi, but even further: to the Mystery Plays of York and Cheshire, to the liturgical dramas of Hildegard von Bingen, to the troubadors and trouveres of France and the anonymous Jewish, Christian, and Muslim poet-musicians who assembled the Cantigas de Santa Maria, to the very foundations of the Latin Mass itself.

It’s the power of the word, the music, and the story, together, to express the deepest, most intuitive, most archetypal aspects of human experience: joy and loss.

This post is offered in memory of the much-missed David Munrow (1942-76), and dedicated to my brother-in-music Larry Young: my oldest and still one of my best musical friends, with whom I embarked on many journeys, and with whom I learned an awful lot, awfully early, about being a musician and being a man.