Saturday, February 28, 2015

Thoreau: The Poem I Would Have Writ

Henry David Thoreau, 1817 - 1862

As a companion to last week's Emerson post, here's a marvelous couplet from his friend, protege, and, ultimately, peer, Henry David Thoreau.
My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.
Is there any doubt that our view of creativity is usually too constricted? Anyone who has ever opened their mouth to speak, is improvising as musicians do. Anyone who has ever built a life with structures, routines, relationships, obligations, and pleasures, is a composer. Anyone who has ever had a baby, or left home, has embraced the unknown, and is an artist beyond a doubt.

And as for those of us who are artists in the formal sense, which ones have ever captured the full complexity of life and the abiding mystery of lived reality?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

So, If Money is Speech . . .

Our prevailing legal framework holds that money is speech. This means that since money is needed to get a message out there, for example in political campaigns, the restriction of money is a restriction of speech. This suggests that access is indivisible from speech itself. Wouldn't it follow, then, that people without money are having their right to free speech infringed upon? I'm not trying to be cute here. It seems like this makes legal sense, no?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Emerson: Every Spirit Builds a House

In his book-length essay of 1836 Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Shame & Shelby Lynne

Why do we write? We write because we want to have an impact on the reader; to reach him or her and cause some mental movement. We write because we think we have something to say. But the catch here is that until we try to write it, we don't actually know what the hell we are thinking. Writing explains us to ourselves. And by putting stuff down on paper, in public, we sometimes put something out there that we have to live up to.

Or maybe we shame ourselves into action, like I did with my post Spotified Ambivalence, where I confessed that I had been listening to a lot of Shelby Lynne online, but had yet to lay down any cold hard cash to signify my allegiance. That was nibbling away at me, so one day last week I flipped through iTunes and paid my 9.99 for her super-fine LP of 2003, Identity Crisis, on which Shelby composed every song herself. This is the perfect lead cut, Telephone. Worthy of mention: the way the backing vocals shift around from straight harmony to call and response; the deep acoustic bass and the virtuosic jazz-inflected guitar solo; and, above all, the leader's masterful vocals. Shame put behind me, I can declare in good faith that Shelby Lynne is my new favorite artist.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Real John Dewey

Ironically, the great philosopher John Dewey is now little known among liberals, but quite well known among conservatives, for whom he serves as a bete noire of the first rank. Or maybe a boogeyman is a better label, since the Dewey they decry as the father of "progressive" education is a complete caricature, predicated on the idea that Dewey thought children should just do their own thing with no guidance or rigor. This is hogwash, but more on that later. Dewey figures large in my professional life, and in my research I came across Dewey's NYT obit from June 2, 1952. In it, they shared this amazing quote from Dewey, one worth reflecting on. "If I were asked," said Dewey, "to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education I should say: 'Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make of it the full meaning of the the present life.'"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Farewell, Philip Levine

The celebrated poet of the working man Philip Levine died this week. Here's what the NYT said:
In spare, realistic free verse, Mr. Levine explored the subjects that had long animated his work: his gritty Detroit childhood; the soul-numbing factory jobs he held as a youth; Spain, where he lived for some time as an adult; and the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, a personal passion since he was a boy.
One of his most popular works is this one, "What Work Is." I can feel what it's like to stand in that line, and what it's like to be baffled by intimacy, too.
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Barlach's Transcendent "Crippled Beggar"

M. Bogen, photo of Barlach's "Crippled Beggar," 2-14-15

I don't want to be in business of valorizing suffering, but I've long felt there was something noble or transcendent about this 1930 piece by Ernst Barlach called "Crippled Beggar," a treasured holding of the Harvard Art Museums. Rather than being weighed down by gravity he seems to be rising, maybe ready for release from physical constriction or maybe, by gazing inward, he has glimpsed the eternal dimensions of experience. This piece was prominently displayed in a public, non-gallery space at the pre-renovation Fogg Museum, and now, in the newly expanded and improved museum space (designed by Renzo Piano), it once again is prominently displayed, this time in the main courtyard. The curators must love the piece, too.

Yesterday was my first visit since the museums reopened in November after having been closed for a few years. It was good to get reacquainted with so many pieces that feel like old friends, since I have been visiting the Fogg since 1990. Architecturally, the interior is more successful than the exterior. One cool thing is the way it frames and directs your view of the neighboring buildings, including Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center, which is neatly juxtaposed in this view with the rear wall of the original Fogg. The visual experience extends way beyond the individual pieces of art. Bravo!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Vaccination and the Metaphor of the Needle

Really interesting essay-review by Jerome Groopman at the NYRB website about vaccination. One of his source materials is a book by Eula Biss called On Immunity: An Inoculation, in which Biss melds science, philosophy, and literature with her own experience as a new mother. Groopman cites this passage, which is a compelling one:
“Our bodies prime our metaphors,” writes James Geary in I Is an Other, his treatise on metaphor, “and our metaphors prime how we think and act.” If we source our understanding of the world from our own bodies, it seems inevitable that vaccination would become emblematic: a needle breaks the skin, a sight so profound that it causes some people to faint, and a foreign substance is injected directly into the flesh. The metaphors we find in this gesture are overwhelmingly fearful, and almost always suggest violation, corruption, and pollution.
This sounds like it could be describing our zombie obsession, too. Viruses confront us in hideous semi-human form.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Goya: Self Portrait with Dr. Arrieta

Goya, 1820, oil on canvas, approx. 45 x 30 in.

We made it to the Goya show at the Boston MFA just before it closed a few weeks ago. I found this self portrait quite touching. The artist depicts himself in a state of vulnerability and need. But isn't that the state we are all in just a bit, even when healthy? It's certainly part of the human condition, if far from the whole of it. The inscription reads: “Goya, in gratitude to his friend Arrieta: for the compassion and care with which he saved his life during the acute and dangerous illness he suffered towards the end of the year 1819 in his seventy-third year." It was Goya's need that made the doctor's beautiful compassion possible.

But who are the figures in the back? Watchers waiting from the other side?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Don't Worry Baby!


TEXT ADDED 2-13-15

If for some odd reason I was forced to choose one song that I would then have to listen to twenty times in a row, it would be this one. It massages the ear and satisfies the soul. Transported by a nearly subliminal eighth note rhythmic pattern and those lush Beach Boys harmonies, the heart of the song is the arching melody, especially the ascending part in measures nine through twelve. That's the part that first appears at 0:35, when Brian Wilson sings "But she looks in my eyes / and makes me realize (when she says)". John Lennon used this melodic passage in his great late hit, "Starting Over." Let's up the ante: Forced to possess just four bars of music for eternity, I'll take these four.

You can imagine Brian Wilson's tyrannical manager-dad ordering Brian to write a song about drag racing. The plot is nearly incidental, but the "Don't worry baby, everything will turn out all right," chorus is as much of a lyrical message as the song, or any song for that matter, really needs. Brian might not have set out to write the most spiritually uplifting piece of pop music ever, but he did it.

Listen on headphones if you get the chance.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Another Kanye West Jackass Eruption, and More Grammy Silliness

Another year, another Grammys, another Kanye West jackass eruption, another spectacle of pointlessness. It's astounding how little the Grammys have to do with what I'm interested in musically. I don't know what's worse, Kanye West's utter classlessness or his fervent belief that the Grammys have some sort of objective relationship to merit in which someone can supposedly get robbed. Well, I suppose some people did get robbed, like tens of thousands of musicians the Grammy people have never even heard of who are out there playing everyday in clubs and small auditoriums and lofts, and on street corners too.

For what it's worth, here's a partial playlist of what I've been listening to the last couple weeks.

Charlie Parker, "Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection"

Grant Green, "Feelin' the Spirit"

The Band, "Jericho"

Bobby Bland, "Bobby Bland's Greatest Hits: The Duke Recordings"

The Clash, "London Calling"

Zoot Sims and Jimmy Rowles, "Warm Tenor"

Rosanne Cash, "Rules of Travel"

Morton Feldman, "Crippled Symmetry"

Al DiMeola, "All Your Life (A Tribute to the Beatles)"

Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, "Strauss: Four Last Songs"

Brendan Benson, "Lapalco"

Greg Trooper, "Floating"

Sinatra and Jobim, "The Complete Reprise Recordings"

Bruce Cockburn, "Dart to the Heart"

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Spotified Ambivalence

Something is lost and something is found. That's the way it goes, I guess. So I finally got on Spotify, and here's what occurred to me.

1. It's amazing to be able to listen to an artist's entire body of work at will. I had long been wondering about the singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne. I was a bit concerned that she might be a white blues singer. But while her voice can have bluesy tones, she actually covers the range of roots music from country to soul without sounding derivative. I found out all this one weekend on Spotify when I listened to her work over and over for a couple days. An immersive experience. Pretty cool. *

2. And it didn't cost a dime! I chose the free option with commercials, and since those are neatly kept to 30 second bursts, it wasn't bad at all. If you know there's a quick end to a commercial it's tolerable.

3. But this not costing a dime is pretty weird. I figure Shelby Lynne has worked her ass off and is talented to boot, so she deserves to get fairly paid for her music. But I've paid for music for fifty years, so it's ingrained. I have always liked paying for music because it felt like I was directly supporting the artist as well as signalling to myself my commitment to the music. Of course, I mostly listen to music made by artists who are at best "semi-popular," to use Robert Christgau's term, so I know that my dollars are making a difference in their lives. Consider it an implicit Kickstarter precursor. I really need to buy some Shelby Lynne, but an evil little voice whispers, "Dude, you know only chumps pay for music."

4. Plunking down cash for music increases the chance that I'll stick with the music. I can't tell you how many records I didn't initially like that I then returned to and ended up loving. Sometimes the "a ha" moment takes some time. Now, the reason I had purchased a record I didn't like in the first place is because I bought it solely on the basis of reviews. It's been a hobby and sport for me to buy records I haven't heard. Being able to research it and listen first online takes some of the fun out of it, but you won't get burned.

5. I still love the idea of building a collection. In other words, consciously building my knowledge of the music. Kind of like building my own playlist in slow motion over the years. I'm not really into other people's playlists. But I do enjoy listening to the radio, especially the morning jazz show on Harvard's WHRB. I like hearing what the kids are into, and letting them curate my experience that way. I know that in the pay version of Spotify you can build your collection. Not sure if the experience is the same.

6. I need to mention that though I listened to Shelby Lynne all weekend long, I have no idea who her musicians are. As a serious music listener I've always been very into knowing who's playing on stuff. It matters to me if it's Jim Keltner or Steve Gadd on drums. These are musicians' musicians. They do it for the music and not for the fame. I miss the old ritual of getting a new recording, putting it on, and reading the liner notes and credits while the music plays. You can learn a lot at AllMusic, but it's not the same. Maybe there's another way?

7. Speaking of AllMusic, searching (and researching) online is very different than doing it through print matter. I have these huge books of reviews that I love to browse. A couple weeks ago I pulled the Penguin Guide to Jazz off the shelf. That puppy is 1000 pages long. So I was physically flipping through the pages and noticed a big section on the reed man Dave Liebman. Basically I learned about all of his recordings right then and there. Browsing that way is actually more random than browsing online. The online experience is more personalized, which is its strength also its weakness.

Something is lost and something is found.

* There's probably already something newer than Spotify.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Inventor

Last year I did a post on Merle Oberon, one of the great beauties of the early cinema. I figured that was a worthy theme, so I thought I would do a followup, this time featuring Hedy Lamarr, who in the 1930s was sometimes called "the most beautiful woman in the world." Setting aside the cultural biases implicit in that statement, I think we can agree that she was a looker. What I didn't know before researching her was that she was also a brainiac whose hobby was inventing things.

This story at NPR explains that "in the 1940s — in an attempt to help the war effort — she quietly invented what would become the precursor to many wireless technologies we use today, including Bluetooth, GPS, cellphone networks and more." This is all detailed in a book by Richard Rhodes called Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Rhodes explains in this excerpt from the NPR story:
As she was inventing, Rhodes says, Lamarr was simultaneously glued to the events of World War II. When German submarines began targeting passenger cruise liners, he says, she felt compelled to invent something to help the Allied cause. She zeroed in on torpedoes, which were powerful weapons but hard to control. Rhodes says she thought that if they could be radio-guided, there was a better chance they would hit their target. "She understood that the problem with radio signals was that they could be jammed. But if you could make the signal hop around more or less randomly from radio frequency to radio frequency, then the person at the other end trying to jam the signal won't know where it is," he says. "If they try to jam one particular frequency, it might hit that frequency on one of its hops, but it would only be there for a fraction of a second."
The ideas of Lamarr and her co-inventor George Antheil were eventually worked into the US Navy's technology called the "sonobuoy" that "would use sonar to detect submarines in the water and transmit the information to an airplane above." Lamarr's idea added the crucial jam-proofing element. The NPR piece says that "today, vestiges of her frequency-hopping technique are found in most digital devices that communicate wirelessly."

I guess she ignored advice to not worry her pretty little head about stuff.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

False Memories Are Easy

Heard while languishing in gridlocked, soul-crushing, snow-encumbered, "nightmare" traffic trying to drive into Boston yesterday: A great piece with neuroscientist David Linden on Terry Gross' Fresh Air. Talking about false memory, Linden said that not only is it possible to create false memories in children, it's remarkably easy. Linden's explanation went something like this. One day you ask your five-year-old kid, Did you see Jimmy today? When the kid says no, you just say that you think he did see Jimmy. Next week, ask if he saw Jimmy last week. The kid will say yes. Then the next week ask the kid if Jimmy was wearing a green shirt when he saw him that day, and the kid will say yes. I'm convinced that I have false memories, which are just ideas or images that occurred to me some time ago that were then cemented on repeated returning to that idea or image.

Among many topics, Linden said that the reason we like chili peppers is that they make a meal "emotionally salient." How does that work? "They're a bit painful." Linden said. "Why should we want to put something painful in our food? I think it is because it is rewarding to eat something that is a little bit of a threat."

UPDATE 2-10-15
Slate has an article about false memory in the context of the Brian Williams flap. For scientists, false memories are a given, something not even remotely controversial. And because we know that all of us have false memories, we have a responsibility to cross-check our recollection when it is of public import. So Brian Williams might have been fooled by a false memory, but he should've done some verification, especially since he is in the news business.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

No, Bach Wouldn't Play a Laptop

One of the silliest tropes among many music writers and fans is the insistence that if Bach (or fill in the blank) lived today he (or she) would be experimenting with electronic music -- as if the thing to know about Bach is his newness, as opposed to his love for melody, counter-melody, interlocking rhythmic form, and the sonority of acoustic instruments such as we hear in this concerto; as if, if Bach were alive today he'd be manning a laptop in front of a sun- and ecstasy-baked crowd in Ibiza or maybe playing lead guitar in a progressive heavy metal band; as if he would no longer care for the sound of an oboe. If anything, if Bach had the option to be alive today, he'd probably say, "No, but thanks for asking. I'm good where I'm at."