Rain after months of drought feels just like moving back to Portland, especially in this tidy, piny suburb of the Bay. I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned east to go up the hill and thought I was back on Mount Tabor. Skyline of trees, traffic light on a single-lane road bright against the clouds, a film of water running clean on the paving.
Dayadhvam and all that. My teenage heart can’t let go of rainfall and dry land, any more than it can let go of nineties guitars. It so happens there have been a lot of nineties guitars around the house this week, and the weather has made us wonder if the Northwest is holding on to its legacy of nineties guitars, or if it’s all mandolins and beards on the one hand and Teh Electro on the other. By way of research J. found this, which we couldn’t watch for long. “It’s like he decided to become the Frank Zappa of Portland.”
Rain, rain, rain....
Rime is to some poets a stiff and grudging but to others an officious servant, over-active in offering suggestions to the mind; and no poet is rightly a master until he has learnt how to sift those suggestions, rejecting many and accepting only the fittest. Keats in Endymion has not reached nor come near reaching this mastery: in the flush and eagerness of composition he is content to catch at almost any and every suggestion of the rime, no matter how far-fetched and irrelevant. He had a great fore-runner in this fault in Chapman, who constantly, especially in the Iliad, wrenches into his text for the rime's sake ideas that have no kind of business there. Take the passage justly criticised by Bailey at the beginning of the third Book:--
There are who lord it o'er their fellow-men
With most prevailing tinsel: who unpen
Their baaing vanities, to browse away
The comfortable green and juicy hay
From human pastures; or, O torturing fact!
Who, through an idiot blink, will see unpack'd
Fire-branded foxes to sear up and singe
Our gold and ripe-ear'd hopes. With not one tinge
Of sanctuary splendour, not a sight
Able to face an owl's, they still are dight
By the blear-ey'd nations in empurpled vests,
And crowns, and turbans.
Here it is obviously the need of a rime to 'men' that has suggested the word 'unpen' and the clumsy imagery of the 'baaing sheep' which follows, while the inappropriate and almost meaningless 'tinge of sanctuary splendour' lower down has been imported for the sake of the foxes with fire-brands tied to their tails which 'singe' the metaphorical corn-sheaves (they come from the story of Samson in the Book of Judges).
Sidney Colvin, John Keats: His Life and Poetry
Il faut cultiver notre jardin, but they keep dehydrating my jardin for shipping off to Fernley, Nevada, or wherever fond hopes are warehoused.
Little wheels came rumbling
On a little cloud of tar
And the skull-and-bony driver
Said lad, are you going far
Said I wish I could go backwards
All the way back to the sun
Then I’d wrap my feet in golden sheets
When threshing time was done
Said the driver, oh my lovely,
Won’t you dive into the tar
And the little wheels went tumbling
Oh my little crowded car
R. and I enjoy singing the verse of “Gore in a Rut” together, but I think the video would give her wrong ideas about the farm.
R’s face in the sun is all contrasts, white with fringed dark sockets and a rose mouth. She gives me palmfuls of sand.
Fucking Twitter—that if Twitter comes not as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all—
The inhibitor is knowing one’s audience too exactly. The computers were told to ascertain their exact histories and characters, because M. Market said so. Well, there’s a reason I haven’t checked the access logs on this thing in years. Kathryn sent a Times article on ebook analytics in which an author (who makes six figures from “young adult paranormal romances”) asks (not really asking), “What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?”
Ack. I see the utility. Like the utility whose job it is to keep the furnace running, or the toilet flushing. I think “engagement” is another mask of the old enemy, ambition.
A seat in my winter garden, no more. Good. Well, perhaps very bad. I yain’t what I yain’t, sailor man.
The Philip Glass Ensemble, Einstein on the Beach, an Opera in Four Acts, UC-Berkeley, October 27, 2012.
Alarm Will Sound, Music of Steve Reich, Stanford University, March 16, 2013.
Alongside the long path of thinking about minimalism and rock, there came a couple of live shows by American colossi. The Reich was especially on point, being in part a successful cut-up of some harmonies from Radiohead albums, but both were helpful in getting a handle on genre. Like many people, I’ve often thought of minimalism as somehow twinned with electric rock, seeing as they sprang up around the same time and place and used many of the same technologies.
Riley, Reich and Glass (whose selections from Einstein on the Beach I also heard at the same time when Glass toured San Francisco with his group) all influenced me positively and pointed to a way out of the cul-de-sac in which I seemed to be stuck. I had grown up listening to jazz and then later found myself surrounded by the pounding, insistent rhythms and simple harmonic language of rock. That genuinely native music felt to me like my own genome… what appealed to me about these early works of Minimalism was that they did not deconstruct or obliterate the fundamental elements of musical discourse such as regular pulsation, tonal harmony, or motivic repetition. Indeed they did the opposite: they embraced pulsation and repetition with an almost childlike glee. To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience.
—John Adams, Hallelujah Junction
Plausible, but a distinction is getting blurred. Granted, everything blurs in the 1970s; you have high-culture magpies like Adams pilfering from the radio at the same time that art-school rockers are raiding the conservatory. But they started in different corners.
I was a kid who grew up with jazz. I was born in 1936, so that was my quote unquote popular music. In 1950, I heard bebop right after I heard Bach and then The Rite Of Spring and those three musics basically form who I am. To tell you the truth, when I was a kid and I heard Bill Haley and Elvis and Fats Domino, I couldn’t care less. I was just like who would listen to this? And I just went back to listening to Miles Davis and I really didn’t pay attention to rock and roll.
—Steve Reich, 2013 interview
I believe him, too; only I think one music is missing. It stands to reason that, faced with the Stravinsky/serialist spat, Reich would side the former, but to fully map his genome you have to go back one revolution earlier, to the unavoidable Wagner. I’m thinking of Nicholas Spice’s description of The Ring:
We follow the action in big temporal arcs, several times longer than those we would experience in a play using the same dialogue. For example, the dramatic action of the first scene of Die Walküre takes four times longer in Wagner’s opera than it would if you simply read it aloud… In passages such as this one, Wagner’s music has an effect on our sense of time that is the reverse of the effect most music in the classical canon has on us. Where most classical music expands our sense of temporal duration, Wagner’s contracts it. Most music, though short, seems long; Wagner, though long, seems short.
I admit that Wagner may not seem short to everyone. But the time dilation that Spice describes is exactly what happened to us in high school, listening to Einstein on the Beach in the car, and even more so in the performance beginning to end. It was high school friends who came out from Tucson to see it with me (on mushrooms, as it later turned out; keep it weird, Tucson). One of them, who would organize 24-hour video game marathons with Einstein on the Beach looping in the background the whole time, used to say, “I don’t know if Glass’s music is even very good; it’s just so long that it doesn’t matter.”
That’s a useful thing to say about such music, like the odd acuity of the Twain quip that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The five minutes of E flat that begin Das Rheingold are a zero point; if they are not quite death, they come prior to our experience of life. And that, more than technology or tone, is what separates such works from the germ of rock music, because the salient thing about rock is of course that it is alive, that it hooks together the simplest of devices, a magnet and a vacuum tube, and makes them sing.
Minimalism ran the rock algorithm backward. Instead of bringing machines to life, it pressed human performers into emulating phase patterns that machines could have created, that we do hear machines create every day, and so arrived at, not death—even when Glass addresses the atom bomb, it’s never simply death—but the same undeath that begins Das Rheingold. An ascetic’s bliss, the love itself unmoving of “Burnt Norton.” Also a skeleton picked clean, a memento mori worth a long look. It’s said that Wagner’s music out of time corresponds to a world that had lost its teleology. The world of minimalism is harder to describe, being our world, but we’ve suffered it already.
I had the title in mind early, and meant it both as a description of my homeland and as a program for genre. I thought there might be a kind of minimalism placed halfway between Woody Guthrie and Gang of Four, that would speak to the time as they spoke to theirs. The results don't sound much like either, but are perhaps more intelligible against those starting points.
The record was made on a laptop, the oldest computer in the house, that could barely play back the mixes in real time. It was the only machine able to run the still older audio software that I’d kept around from a time when software was still traded on CD-Rs.
Making it took just over four years. Everything except the noisy parts was done late at night, in hours stolen from trying to meet the minimum in other areas. One attempt at austerity was to leave out the keyboards. Everything’s a guitar aside from cello here and there, and the horn samples on “Wannsee.”
Whatever the value of the record, I’m happy to remember it as an act of enormous stubbornness.
Berkeley—Palo Alto—El Cerrito, 2009-2013.
Autobibliography: the New Baktun
As far as I can see through the fog, the Books of the Year in English were two translations: the delightful Leskov collection from Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Ottilie Mulzet’s chaperoning the safe arrival of Seiobo Down Below. Cheers for both! But we’re still untimely out here, so the best books I read in 2013 (apart from the Leskov) were Bandarshah by Tayeb Salih and Evelina by Fanny Burney.
Bandarshah is a little like Pedro Páramo in that it’s not like anything. A short, inconclusive book (it includes two of a projected five parts), it barely has time to jump between decades in sketching three generations who sometimes inhabit history and sometimes parables or dreams. The village and a few of the characters are shared with Season of Migration to the North, but without the sharp lens of that book’s anger, things tend to fall out of focus. The effect is mesmerizing.
Evelina is a master’s study of being trapped in a room full of other people and their unwanted attentions. If you’ve been in that room you know. The subtitle announces a young lady’s entrance into the world, but something must be wrong with the geometry because each step forward gives her less freedom to move. Anything other than the standard comic ending would have been unbearable; what a relief is genre. And how fresh she makes her stock characters. Some behave correctly and some less correctly, and some really, oh dear, quite uncorrectly; these last are her specialty, and it’s as funny as Sturges.
I never noted anything for 2012, a black pool of a year. What did I read? I fell into Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. There was a lot of good Iberia: Rodoreda (notably A Broken Mirror), and Queirós, The Maias.