Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A world about to be lost

The following is from the opening chapter of Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God: A Response to the Bible:
. . . once Luther stood up and asserted the need to speak the truth as he saw it and not pay lip-service to tradition, things could never be quite the same again. We tend to see Luther's break with the medieval church, like Spinoza's with Jewish tradition, as the triumph of light and integrity over the forces of obscurantism and hypocrisy; but this is to see it from their own point of view. It is important, however, to grasp what gets lost as well as what is won in such revolutions. . .
What does get lost? Might it be worth trying to regain some of what was lost in our inexorable march forward?

Chapter four of Josipovici’s On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion is titled "Shakespeare: trust and suspicion at play". The chapter opens with a passage from Act I, Scene iii, of Richard II—two men are preparing to duel, each intending to prove with their lives that the other is "A traitor to his God, his king, and him". Richard intercedes and prevents the duel from occurring. Josipovici’s argument here is that Richard's action "opens the way for the flowering of Shakespeare’s mature art". As part of this argument, Josipovici doubles back to Scene i, in which another duel is in the offing. In these opening scenes, Shakespeare is, Josipovici suggests, "presenting us with a world which is just about to be lost, a world in which we can trust because inner and outer are intimately related, and God still speaks directly to us, as he did to Abraham and Moses, and as Achilles' mother did to him."

Josipovici employs the work of Peter Brown to illustrate this "world which is just about to be lost". The duel ("trial by combat") is, in effect, a variation on the trial by ordeal, in the sense that guilt or innocence is determined through the body. The ordeal strikes us as barbaric. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the ordeal is often used to represent the barbarity and the irrationality of the Middle Ages, indeed to often stand in for the totality. Josipovici quotes Brown on a shift "from consensus to authority" that was occurring in the 12th century. This shift
was bound up in the shift in the relations between inner and outer, subjectivity and objectivity; for the supernatural, 'which had tended to be treated as the main source of the objectified values of the group, came to be regarded as the preserve . . . of intensely personal feeling'. It led too to the growth of rationality, 'for appeal to reason in clerical controversy invariably implied . . . that men could be expected to obey rapid and trenchant decisions--the outcome of syllogisms, the production of an authoritative written text'.
In the play, Richard puts a halt to the duel. We don't have any definitive reason why he does this, but "the simple fact is . . . that by his intervention he reveals his own fatal lack of trust in the process that tradition has ordained." We might look on this and see this as incontestably good: the duel is a ridiculous way to solve problems, and Richard was right to put a stop to it. But, Josipovici notes, as the play continues, Richard exercises his authority in an increasingly arbitrary manner. As he does so, he reveals himself to be "at odds with the workings of nature". Where once his name meant something when invoked, now, since he's essentially scuttled the tradition on which such an invocation relied, his power becomes ever more arbitrary, his name meaningless, just another word: "in a world shorn of consensus and the acceptance of tradition, a name is a word like any other".

As mentioned, Josipovici draws from Peter Brown, on the shift away from consensus (as represented by the ordeal, or duel) toward authority. Again, to us, the matter seems straightforward. The ordeal is symbolic of the kind of irrational "justice" resorted to in the dark days before laws and constitutions and basic civil rights for individuals. And the idea that the supernatural was seen as "the main source of objectified values of the group" is exactly the kind of thing that we are happy to be rid of today. For, let's face it, it's not like there actually was any supernatural from which such "objectified values" could be derived. It was superstition and nothing more. (It's not as if God actually spoke "directly to us, as he did to Abraham and Moses, and as Achilles' mother did to him." That's just literature and religion.) We can talk all we want about how Richard's abandonment of tradition (perhaps because he'd lost faith in it himself) led to his increasingly arbitrary rule, but isn't the ordeal--the duel--just as arbitrary?

Josipovici doesn't spend a lot of time on this (just enough to illuminate his point about Shakespeare and Richard II), but, already interested in elements of tradition that have been lost, I was intrigued enough to seek out Brown myself. The work in question is an essay called "Society and the Supernatural: A Medieval Change", which is collected in his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity. In Brown's discussion, the ordeal emerges as far more complicated than our modern imagination generally allows for. We imagine a form of mob justice in which, almost tautologically, physical evidence of the body proves the case (e.g., a man weighted down will sink, thus proving guilt); we associate it with witch-hunts. But there appears to have been much more to it than that. Brown describes various different kinds of trial by ordeal and the detailed preparation undertaken beforehand (which often took weeks). He talks about several recorded instances in which the participant of an ordeal had the option to back out. The point here is that the ordeal was a process through which the community set a matter to rest. And it appears to have been a process that was understood and in which the community placed its collective trust. We think of it in terms of a superstitious belief that God would intervene and protect the innocent, that it is God who judges in this sense. But this isn't quite right either. According to Brown (as referenced by Josipovici--I had to return Brown's book to the library and so must rely on the second-hand quotation here):
. . . it is important to understand that 'it is not a judgement by God; it is a remitting of a case ad iudicium Dei, "to the judgement of God"'. Thus, 'by being brought to the judgement of God, the case already stepped outside the pressures of human interest, and so its resolution can be devoid of much of the odium of human responsibility'.
This might sound like so much splitting of hairs to us. And how exactly is it a good thing that "human responsibility" is removed from the equation? I think that good or bad in our present-day senses are not really relevant when trying to understand something like this. In fact, I'd say that they get in the way of understanding. What seems to matter here is that this was a process that the community trusted in. The removal of human responsibility, in this sense, ends the conflict. The idea is that bad blood is avoided.

What was happening in the Middle Ages that might have caused this shift away from consensus? Brown talks about increased centralization and about clerical reformers concerned with law; as part of this tendency, there was the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (which, among other things, proscribed clergy from any involvement in trials by ordeal, and also more clearly defined the sacraments). These are among the many signposts--including Spinoza and Luther, mentioned above--on the way towards modern conceptions of the individual. Am I trying to argue that we would be better off returning to the use of trials by ordeal? Hardly. And yet it seems to me that something of value was lost along the way. In this case, the sense of trust that communities had in the process might be one thing. The shift from communal justice, to which, in theory at least, everyone agreed, to a more centralized, dispensed justice must have been incredibly confusing. Elsewhere in his essay, Brown writes that "[t]he shift from consensus to authority is one of the most subtle shifts of all in the twelfth century. Is, perhaps, the greatest single precondition for the growth of rationality." And: "In a sense, the exercise of reason, as fostered by the intellectuals and the reformers of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, was the most blatant exercise of authority of all."

It is arguably ironic that the imposition of authority--hierarchy--leads to the growth of rationality. In the United States, we have a written constitution, we have laws, we have contracts (and we have a system of rights). We have highly organized, extremely hierarchical institutions. We have massive corporations unaccountable to any public. Does any of this not seem arbitrary? (A topic for future posts.)

What does all this have to do with Shakespeare? One of the things that appeals to me in Josipovici's criticism is the fact that the problems he identifies and explores so brilliantly in literature, are related to problems in life. In his Introduction to On Trust, he describes what he means by a "craft tradition". Let me quote from it at length:
A craft implies a tradition into which you are inducted by a master; in which you serve your apprenticeship; and in which you in turn become a master. It implies that what you are doing when you practise your craft is, if not necessary to society, at least sanctioned by society. Weaving carpets if you are a female member of a nomadic tribe in Eastern Turkey is a craft tradition; your teacher is your mother, who, as well as passing on her skills to you, inducts you into a whole range of motifs, from which you will never depart, even though no two carpets you make will be precisely the same as hers or even exactly like each other. Being a violinist in a symphony orchestra in the West is to belong to a craft tradition, albeit a more conscious and highly organized one; the day is fast approaching when our society will feel it no longer has any need for symphony orchestras, but we are not quite there yet.

Being a writer is utterly different. Society may pay you for what you produce, but the laws of the marketplace are not the laws of the music academy: there is no sense that all are agreed on what is good and that such agreement rests on a common view of tradition.

Once, of course, writers were called makers, and making poetry, like painting pictures and composing music, was a craft tradition.
Elsewhere in the book, Josipovici discusses thinkers like Schiller and Wittgenstein, who had difficulty with Shakespeare. Where the passing from consensus to authority (again, as exemplified in the dying away of the trial by ordeal) represents a loss of trust in traditional community values (or maybe occurred because that loss was already under way), by the time of Schiller and, later, Wittgenstein that loss is being keenly felt. Josipovici discusses this idea at length with respect to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and Kafka and Beckett, and others (indeed, it is the central concern of the book), but for here the focus is on Shakespeare. Schiller struggles with Shakespeare and sees him as a "naïve artist". Wittgenstein has difficulty understanding Shakespeare as a "great artist" because for him great artists are Romantic, tortured geniuses like Beethoven. Josipovici quotes from Wittgenstein's Culture and Value:
'"Beethoven’s great heart"--nobody could speak of "Shakespeare’s great heart"', he writes. 'I do not think Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on "the lot of the poet". Nor could he regard himself as a prophet or as a teacher of mankind. People stare at him in wonderment, almost as at as spectacular natural phenomenon.'
We have some difficulty with Shakespeare ourselves. Why else the all-too-common need to assign his plays to someone else, someone more suitable? As Josipovici notes, the image of Shakespeare as the "untutored child of nature" goes back beyond Schiller to at least Ben Jonson, with the publication of the First Folio. We don't like this image, but instead we try to explain him away. We have limited imaginations and too many of us are depressingly literal about art, so we try to find some other historical figure with the kinds of experience we think would be necessary to produce these plays. Class-based prejudices still tempt many of us into believing that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat. I suspect that we also want to force Shakespeare into our still Romantic notions of what great artists are. But Josipovici suggests that we can understand Shakespeare more if we replace the word "nature" with the word "craft":
Shakespeare . . . was firmly embedded in a craft tradition of the kind I described in my Introduction: an artist whose mind was stocked with examples both linguistic and existential from the tradition, and who thought of himself as a maker, not a thinker, a craftsman whose primary allegiance was to the production of a play on time and for a particular occasion.
Shakespeare was embedded in a craft tradition, but it's a tradition that is already on the wane. He is able to recognize this, in his art. This is why Josipovici sees these early scenes in Richard II as the turning point in Shakespeare's career. In these scenes, he quickly and effortlessly invokes a tradition, then has Richard ignore it, after which Richard's rule not only grows more arbitrary, but increasingly he is only acting the part of king, since his rule--his word--no longer has any value. It is as if, in this way, Shakespeare discovers his subject, making his plays "out of the ambiguous nature of play" (how often, in Shakespeare, do we see plays within plays?) and exploring "the breakdown of trust and the corrosive effects of suspicion". Josipovici sees Shakespeare as remarkable for being able to do this, while still trusting completely in the tradition in which he was working.

Later writers, from the Romantics on, aren't so fortunate, and the rest of On Trust deals with a lineage of writers who are aware of these concerns. All of which I find endlessly fascinating, but I want to stress how much I appreciate his work just as much for the light he shines on other aspects of our lives. How do we, artists or not, act when we can no longer completely trust in the traditions we have inherited? How can art be seen as more than mere escapism or entertainment, but a necessary component of our lives?

This has been a long post, but as you can see, I'm really just getting started.

Related: Smoothness of Surface; review of Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

2640 Robbed

A message comes from the Red Emma's collective informing us that 2640 was robbed (2640 is the site of valuable radical events, including talks and films; I've mentioned two such events, here and here):
We were dismayed this afternoon to find our sound cabinet at 2640 broken open, with most of our sound system missing. About $2000 worth of gear was taken, almost all of which we had bought with money borrowed from our own (meager) personal finances in order to help get the space off the ground. We used this equipment for most of the events we do at the space, from talks to concerts to film screenings, and until we can replace it, we're pretty much screwed. We're trying to raise money to replace the stolen equipment - any support you can offer is greatly appreciated, and will help us get community events running smoothly and audibly at 2640 that much more quickly.
Please consider offering some financial support. If you would like to help, click here for PayPal information and to learn where to send any checks.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mid-Atlantic Radical Book Fair

This past weekend we went to the Mid-Atlantic Radical Book Fair, hosted by Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse at 2640. The event is pretty much what it sounds like: radical publishers and book shops and activists getting together to sell books and meet and greet and talk politics and activism. AK Press, Haymarket Books, and Autonomedia were among the publishers in attendance. As always, it was an entertaining and informative event.

There were various events throughout the weekend: films, readings, discussions, workshops. I attended three discussions. The first was on Saturday, a rather tepid session called "Anarchism and Marxism". A bunch of young people and me sitting around a circle listening to an older activist talk about his group's take on Anarchism and where it overlaps with liberatory Marxism. I mostly agreed with his perspective (more Murray Bookchin than Hakim Bey, if I understood him correctly), but it was necessarily brief. The discussion never really got going, and then it was over. Feeling enervated by the workshop and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of interesting books on display (we're trying not to buy much in the way of new books), I was having a hard time getting into the spirit of the thing. Aimée showed up, and we walked around some more (she bought some children's books, including one about Woodie Guthrie). She had some things she was interested in doing there, while I was already feeling sleepy and out of it. But then we attended an excellent session called "Rethinking War and the Struggle Against it in the Neoliberal Era", led by George Caffentzis and Sylvia Federici. I thought I knew a lot about neoliberalism and the reasons behind the war, but my understanding was considerably deepened by what they had to say and the ensuing discussion.

Caffentzis and Federici are members of the Midnight Notes Collective [the website is pretty rudimentary, though there are plenty of links to interesting articles], a collective which since the 1970s has "directed its political intervention and theoretical work to the anti-nuclear, anti-war, and anti-capitalist movements." The latter quote comes from the back of the book Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 (published by Autonomedia), which I bought at the Fair. I'm a little less than halfway through this book, and I already think it's a must-read. In my "Disaster Capitalism" post I suggested that David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Ellen Meiksins Wood's Empire of Capital were crucial books for anyone hoping to understand the world today. Let me add Midnight Oil to that short list. The authors' analysis of the reasons behind the 1991 Gulf War (including why Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait), the background of the imposition of neoliberalism, the internationalization of class war, etc--all of this is brilliant and fascinating. It will figure in future posts about capitalism

I also walked out with a copy of Federici's book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Described as "a history of the body in the transition to capitalism", this book fits right into my growing interest in the origins of and resistances to capitalism. Peter Linebaugh is the author of another such book that I need to read, The London Hanged (about which, see Resolute Reader), and is also a member of Midnight Notes. From Linebaugh's blurb to Caliban and the Witch:
Federici shows that the birth of the proletariat required a war against women, inaugurating a new sexual pact and a new patriarchal era: the patriarchy of the wage. Firmly rooted in the history of the persecution of the witches and the disciplining of the body, her arguments explain why the subjugation of women was as crucial for the formation of the world proletariat as the enclosures of the land, the conquest and colonization of the 'New World,' and the slave trade.

On Sunday, we returned to the Book Fair to hear Dahr Jamail talk about his experiences as an independent journalist in Iraq (including readings from his book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Iraq), along with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who talked about their own experiences in the war, as well as their efforts to organize active duty service members against it. As you might expect, this talk was moving and informative. And . . . and I wish i had more to say about it, but I'm tired and this meandering post is long enough. I may say more later on. But for now check out Jamail's website and his blog and the IVAW site for more information.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Less seems to be on the line

Carl Wilson has two blog posts--sort of a series of footnotes, if you will--following up on his excellent Slate article from last week, which was a response to Sasha Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece about indie rock, "A Paler Shade of White" (see my earlier posts on this topic, here, here, and here). The following comes from the second, and addresses the common "so what?" refrain:
Finally, what is the problem with the upper-class-ization of indie rock, if that's true? It might mirror some social trends I find troubling but what is the musical issue? It's not an objection to any one or several groups' practice, but to an accumulated tendency, and some of the answers are similar to what Sasha named as the consequences of a lack of African-American influence. The main one I think is the profile of ambition that comes across in the music: Because the privileged musicians don't have the same survival issues at stake that pop musicians historically often have had (which are comparable to what motivates a lot of people who become star athletes), the aspirations are more modest and the stakes often seem much lower. Less seems to be on the line. The art of performance often suffers (that "show-biz" put-it-all-out-there fire). With the most gifted musicians, this doesn't matter so much, because they find something else to be ambitious about, something to stretch their capacities. But with others it can indeed produce a dullish, good-enough music, which was the core of Sasha's complaint.
Focusing on "survival issues" could easily lead us into the rather iffy area of insisting that "real" artists must materially suffer for their art. But maybe "survival" could be read metaphorically as "artistic need". Does all of this nice enough music need to exist? I mean, for the artists. Does the mountain of professional-quality, good enough fiction need to exist? Do the writers have any felt need to write, other than an abstract desire to be a writer, to have written, to publish? Impossible to really answer, of course, but it often seems as if not much is on the line artistically (as opposed to, say, the creator's very existence) in much of the fiction or music that is produced.

I'm writing through a fog of headaches and sleepiness, otherwise I'd be better able to flesh out my thinking (or make it minimally coherent?). I may have to return to this idea later.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Disquiet

Sturdy, Middle Class Professionalism

Jeff Vandermeer weighs in on "how indie rock lost its soul"--oh, wait, no he doesn't. He's talking about fantasy short fiction and what he sees as its "profoundly disturbing, if sturdy, middle class professionalism" (link via The Reading Experience). Might I suggest that the problems with indie rock are similar? (And for fiction generally, not just fantasy short fiction?)

On various occasions at his blog, Simon Reynolds has written about sorting through the voluminous piles of promotional cds he receives as a music critic. The problem with this huge mass of music is not, he says, that most of it is terrible. The problem is that most of it is not terrible. Most of the music is minimally competent, decent, "ok". But nothing to get excited about. I've been encountering a similar problem with my recent purges. First, I've had to decide whether to listen to cds that have sat unattended for years. Then, having more or less decided to at least sample most of them (woe!), there is the general sense that most of them are not bad at all. But not bad is not good enough when my goal is to cull. (Indeed, for my purposes, even pretty good is often not good enough when the disc in question has failed to excite me.)

Permit me some massive, unsupported generalizations about fiction: The huge quantity of fiction that is produced every year and published under the category of "literary fiction" runs together into an undifferentiated mass. Most of it is minimally competent, professional, not without local pleasures, perhaps, but not really much more than that. And maybe for many it doesn't need to be. The pleasures to be had in these novels is enough. For others it isn't. I admit that I am not the best judge of the array of new fiction available, since, for example, I have yet to read a single novel that was published this year. But I've read more new releases in previous years, and I see the kinds of books that get discussed most often. We have lots of writers who can put together a sentence, who have learned how to professionally tell a story or develop a character. Vandermeer writes:
As I thought about this further, I visualized a story mill, similar to a puppy mill. An endless churning sound as thousands of writers typed and handwrote the first drafts of stories destined from conception to be good enough. Good enough for publication. Good enough to pass muster. Good enough to earn an appreciative nod. It was a depressing thought.

I kept coming back to words like rough and wild and pushing and punk and visionary. Words for what I was reading were more like twee, comfortable, recycled, reasonable, well-rounded, whimsical, unoriginal, well-behaved, and fuzzy.
Many readers complain about the supposedly pernicious effects of workshops and MFAs on such affairs. I can't say, having no experience with either. Another common complaint is about the stereotypically mannered-New Yorker style story. Awards are criticized as middlebrow (in theory and practice). But the books that win are rarely truly awful (and sometimes something bold breaks through).

With indie rock, touching on Carl Wilson's points about professionalism and class, the problem seems similar. Many, many sort of ok, kind of pretty good, not terrible bands that don't push things, who refine and hone (even if they aren't necessarily technical masters--after all, punk/DIY is in the DNA somewhere). More from Vandermeer:
Perhaps also there is too much comfort in our own lives, too many distractions in the form of easy, relatively cheap technology that contribute to this softness–make it easy for us to be satisfied with what we’ve done: content, content, content. Happy with the well-rounded sentences, the fulfilling character arc, the recursive plot. Patting ourselves on the back for miracles never earned, epiphanies bartered for with trinkets and trifles. Thrilled just to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
And we get defensive when anyone challenges our right to be entertained or questions the assumptions behind the nature of the entertainment (asks whether we might not--just occasionally--ask for more than just entertainment) or criticizes our favorite writer or indie rock band.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Follow-up on Indie rock

In my view, most the response to Sasha Frere-Jones' provocative New Yorker piece on "how indie rock lost its soul" has been disappointing. I see people getting defensive, pointing out exceptions (TV on the Radio!!! Spare me.), nit-picking his omissions. I don't see much engagement with what I saw as valid criticisms, however sloppy I found the piece (obviously, the sloppiness has contributed to the nature of the response, which is a big reason why I found it frustrating in the first place). I posted a comment to this post by Brendan Wolfe at The Beiderbecke Affair, in which I expressed this disappointment and said this (which I only include here because I'd meant to say it in my own post):
I think the point about not wanting to look stupid (or be accused of racism) is a good one. But one point I made, which I think is important, is that indie rock comes out of punk/DIY (while also taking Beatles/Dylan as models--as he says), which is generally oppositional toward what was seen as commercial pop. With the rise of hip hop as the most visible popular black music, these two tendencies combine to give us a lineage of artists that basically don't engage with much contemporary black music. Thirty years of that [sic!] this, and here we are. Now that indie rock bands have lost some of their antipathy toward pop, it is still in the context of 30 years of avoiding it. Etc.
Well, today in Slate, Carl "Zoilus" Wilson has an excellent response to it, far and away the best I've seen, better even than the original article. Carl makes some of the same points I made, and a lot more. One area in particular he focuses on is class:
Ultimately, though, the "trouble with indie rock" may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that's the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It's a cliche to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off "hipsters" busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, the particular kind of indie rock Frere-Jones complains about is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.
Read the whole thing.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Some Thoughts on Reason

Though I liked Steven Pinker's book, The Language Instinct, various more recent, shorter articles and interviews have placed him in a more negative light in my mind. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, I think very highly of, with her fine novel, The Mind-Body Problem, and her excellent book on Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza (which I wrote about here). Here they are, the brainy power couple and "proud atheists", being interviewed together in Salon. It's an interesting interview; they emerge as engaging and witty, and if, as an atheist, I were forced to vote for the public face of atheism, I suspect I could do worse than opt for them (politics aside). They are far preferable to the aggressive and tone-deaf Richard Dawkins (however much I may value The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker) and the aggressive and increasingly foul Christopher Hitchens (links via This Space and Lenin's Tomb).

And yet I still feel as though something is missing, when it comes to questions of faith and reason. Pinker is asked about a proposed undergraduate requirement course at Harvard called "Reason and Faith", which was dropped after objections from Pinker and others. Pinker agrees that students should have an understanding of religion "as a historical phenomenon", but:
I didn't like the idea of privileging religion above other ideologies that were also historically influential, like socialism and capitalism. I also didn't like the euphemism "faith." Nor did I like the juxtaposition of "faith" and "reason," as if they were just two alternative ways of knowing.
I highlight this passage because I feel that both these terms, "faith" and "reason", are problematic. First, I tend to think that we atheists have a dim understanding of faith. (Pinker says: "faith is believing something without a good reason to believe it". Is this a satisfactory definition of faith? It seems to me that it is not. For example, are "faith" and "belief", or "believing something", necessarily that closely related?) Second, I've been thinking lately that reason is not best understood in the sense we tend to understand it. Goldstein says:
Obviously, religion is a tremendously powerful influence in history. But I have to say -- and I think this is something that Steve and I disagree on -- I do worry whether some of the people who are writing the new atheist books understand what it feels like to be a religious person. Do they get what that feels like? I don't want to say that there's only one kind of religious impulse. There are so many different ways of responding to the world that could be called religious -- some of them very expansive and life-embracing, and some of them not. But I think one of the things that made Steve nervous was to pose these two things -- faith and reason, religion and science -- as alternative ways of pursuing truth. In terms of the pursuit of knowledge, faith is not an alternative mode to science and to reason.
She wants atheists to realize that there might be something we're missing. But then, by way of expanding on Pinker's point, she equates faith with religion, and reason with science. Are these equations accurate? In particular, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the second equation, that of reason with science. In my post about Betraying Spinoza, I said that there seemed to be a difference between Spinoza's reason and what we think of as reason today. Perhaps I'm over-thinking the issue, but much of what I've been reading seems to use reason in a way that makes it difficult to simply align it with science. But I'm really just beginning to investigate these questions.

Pinker doesn't "like the juxtaposition of 'faith', and 'reason,' as if they were just two alternative ways of knowing", and Goldstein says that "[i]n terms of the pursuit of knowledge, faith is not an alternative mode to science and to reason". Once I would have readily agreed with these formulations, but I feel they leave a lot unexamined, unavailable for examination. For example, I question the terms. How does one define knowledge? What kind of knowledge? Goldstein allows that science might not be able to answer all the questions:
Of course, there could be things beyond the reach of science. But could we have any good evidence for accepting it? As soon as you have good evidence, it becomes science. So can there be good evidence for non-scientific propositions? No. Because the minute there is good evidence, it becomes science.
This certainly makes sense. But it only makes sense when we're talking about knowledge of an evidentiary nature. I do not accept that science is the root of all knowledge, unless we want to expand our understanding of what constitutes science (it's possible), or limit what we are allowed to call knowledge. I agree with Goldstein that, as Pinker puts it, "there is a real world that we can come to know". (Frankly, my political outlook depends on it.) Granted, there are those who claim knowledge of a kind I would not recognize as such--knowledge of the existence of God, for example. And it goes without saying that faith (whatever it might be) is not "an alternative mode to science" when it comes to the pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge. It is not going to help one discover a cure for polio.

As I said, I'm only really at the beginning of my inquiry into reason and related questions. I expect to write more about it here. But to finish up, I sense that we are doing a disservice to reason when we employ it as a bludgeon against faith or religion. And I feel that we are doing ourselves a disservice when we narrow our idea of what reason is.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Indie Rock and Whiteness

Sasha Frere-Jones has a lengthy article in The New Yorker about the whiteness of indie rock (link originally via Simon Reynolds), along with a related podcast and follow-up blog post. So far the only response I've seen (I haven't looked for others) has been this relatively brief, interesting, but finally wide of the mark exchange between Tom Breihan and Rob Harvilla at Tom's Status Ain't Hood blog.

SF-J's main argument is that musical miscegenation is where it's at, and that starting in the early 1990s indie rock disappeared up its own ass, receding into whiteness. He spends a lot of time describing the divide, but then the piece just ends with a couple of perfunctory "reasons", which are interesting but not at all fleshed out. One is "social progress". Since black artists are just as likely as white artists to receive major media coverage, they don't need a Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin ripping them off and thus dragging their music into the mainstream. And, now, they can just post an mp3 on MySpace or whatever and people can just find out for themselves. I find these claims too vague and, as a result, largely dubious. Another cause is the success in 1992 of Dr. Dre's The Chronic, with its star-making turn from Snoop Doggy Dogg. This claim strikes me as too specific, and hence sort of silly.

The podcast is too short for him to really go into any depth, though I found some of what he said in it very interesting (for example, I liked where he pointed out Dave Grohl's disco beat in "Smells Like Teen Spirit"). He talks about R&B/rap and Country still following the assembly-line model of pop music--you have your songwriters, your production team, your performers--and suggests that indie kids are still stuck in the Dylan/Beatles model, where you're expected to do everything yourself. I think there's a lot of truth to this point, and I wish he'd spent more time on it. I think, in fact, that not only is the Dylan/Beatles model dominant in indie rock--performers and, especially, listeners investing a particular kind of authenticity in this model, and its punk/DIY extension--but the assembly-line approach of pop is looked on with suspicion, if not outright scorn. Such people (I include myself) are often suspicious of the attempt to be popular and especially suspicious of commercial radio. To some extent this suspicion is not misplaced (though it's become fashionable for those holding such suspicion to be derided). But what it does, in part, is help reify musical divisions and place odd constraints on musicians. When I was in college, I used to say that white musicians dressed down for authenticity (while borrowing from or ripping off black music), while black musicians dressed up for success. A simplistic formulation, but perhaps relevant. Major black artists don't seem to spend too much time worrying about their fame. For me, personally, though I've had a longstanding antipathy towards commercial radio, at various times in recent years I've looked at the dearth of new black music in my own collection and found it unsettling. I've redressed that to some extent, but the sense of a problem persists, even as I've found some contemporary, popular black music to appreciate and enjoy--and I don't apologize at all for liking the other stuff I've liked.

In his follow-up blog post, SF-J notes that people have already been asking, as Rob Harvilla does in the Status Ain't Hood exchange, "Hasn’t indie become more rhythmic in the last five years?" What with LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture and so forth. Brandon Soderberg makes the good point, in a comment to that exchange, that in general the recent indie rock that has been "more rhythmic" has looked back to either British post-punk bands like Gang of Four, or to the halcyon early-80s NYC period of rampant miscegenation and cross-pollination that SF-J loves so much. White indie rock groups aren't really engaging with present-day black music. I think this point is basically correct (though exceptions no doubt exist), and I think SF-J's point basically is, too. But I don't think he's saying anything in his New Yorker piece he hasn't said many times before, and the shape of the piece seems to point towards a big discussion of causes and implications, none of which transpires. This is unfortunate, because, again, I think that his overall claim--that white indie rock has, in the main, distanced itself from black music--is accurate. He's harped in passing on this insularity several times in the past (plus there was that whole Stephin Merritt dust-up last year, which I'm not going to bother to find links for), and often seems to hint at some dark reasons behind it all, which I'm not convinced are fair.

What I'd like to see is more investigation into how and why this came to pass. SF-J nods in the direction of political correctness, but I think it might play more of a role than he admits. His passages about his own funk band, Ui, and the problems he had, as a white man, deciding how he should sing over what was music inspired by black forms, were telling, and might've pointed towards larger problems white indie rockers have in general. But he doesn't really pursue the idea. I'd also like to ask about the implications of this state of affairs. What does it mean? Is insularity necessarily a problem? Is this anything more than people complaining that certain artists don't play music they like? Simply about taste? I don't think it is, in the main, but SF-J doesn't really name too many names (he starts off talking about Arcade Fire--who he likes, despite their lack of swing--and then picks on Wilco in the piece--Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could, he says, have used some syncopation--and admits in the podcast to not liking the Decemberists at all), and a wider discussion of who we're talking about may help (though the names bandied about at Status Ain't Hood seem, to me, to reflect more a problem of taste and don't really get at the heart of the issue--that is, the insularity of an Animal Collective or a Joanna Newsom seems to me to be a personal insularity, not the insularity of a wider scene, if that makes any sense at all). There's a lot that can be said about this, and I'll probably be saying more once the internet discussions heat up some. I've left a lot of stray thoughts out, that would have required lengthening this post too much.

What do you think?

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Business

The recent flurry of music posts does not represent any kind of re-focusing, but is merely a reflection of what I've had time for, as well as my attention span. Posts on literature and politics take longer to write, music posts require less of me. As it is, I have several needing my attention waiting in the wings--for example, on Philip Roth and on the Israel Lobby--including one or two that will continue my engagement with the critical work of Gabriel Josipovici. This post is, of course, needless filler. So, yeah. Moving right along.

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old music

Most of the music I've gotten with the store credit from my big unloading (net decrease so far: 140 cds!) was originally released prior to 2007.

From 2006, two albums that would have placed very highly on my list of last year's favorite music:

Broadcast - The Future Crayon
Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

While we're here, these are four more from 2006. I got them earlier this year, before the big unloading; three of them might have rated highly on last year's list, one of them unquestionably would have:

Circle - Miljard
Grizzly Bear - Yellow House
Juana Molina - Son (this is a gorgeous album; I cannot praise it highly enough)
Pere Ubu - Why I Hate Women (extremely ill-titled, but dark, menacing music; see comments here for some discussion and related links)

The rest has been reissues and older stuff:

Boredoms - Super Roots 5 & Super Roots 6 (I was really looking forward to these being available at affordable prices--back in the day, I paid a lot for Super Roots 7 & Super Roots 8, not to mention Rebore Vol. 0 and Seadrum/House of Sun--but having listened to these two once each, I'm not sure I really needed them all that much. These may come to qualify as relapses from the overall attitude governing the grand reduction in the amount of music I own.)

The Byrds - Fifth Dimension & The Notorious Byrd Brothers (I blame this guy)

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists - Hearts of Oak (excellent indie rock)

Dolly Parton - My Tennessee Mountain Home (this was mostly for Aimée, but I like it too; released in 1973, it was already Dolly's 23rd album!)

Pere Ubu - Cloudland (finally! also, I was inspired by the comments here to listen to its follow-up Worlds In Collision several times over the weekend, and Scraps was right: it's a good one)

Max Roach - Percussion Bitter Sweet (I've been meaning to get more of Roach's music; this one has Eric Dolphy on it. I just got it yesterday, and haven't yet listened to it)

Stephen Stills - Manassas (I may have mentioned this one)

Young Marble Giants - Colossal Youth & Collected Works (affordable 3-cd set of, I believe, all of the band's music; so far, I've only listened to Colossal Youth, from 1980, and Simon Reynolds is right: it's pretty much perfect)

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new music

I've mentioned more than once that I've been getting rid of music, and also that I haven't been acquiring a lot of new music. I have managed to get some cds with store credits from my trade-ins, only a few of which are 2007 releases (unlike last year, there is not likely to be a year-end best-of post here).

This is the entire list of 2007 albums that I have (those marked * were acquired with store credit):

*Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam (only a few listens, pretty good)

Bowerbirds - Hymns for a Dark Horse (bought at the Mountain Goats show where they opened; the album is quite nice, if a little samey)

Bill Callahan - Woke on a Whaleheart (had a hard time with this at first, then it was growing on me, but it's been months since I last played it and I can't really say what I think of it now)

Deerhoof - Friend Opportunity (still resisting me; not nearly so good as Reveille or Apple O')

*Feist - The Reminder (pretty; finding it alternately boring and excellent, depending on my mood)

Jesu - Conqueror (very good; expands on the awesomeness of last year's Silver ep)

Miranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (awesome)

LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (mostly excellent; I've praised "All My Friends", but "Us V Them" is also fantastic, as is "North American Scum", about which, incidentally, see this great Mike Barthel post at Clap Clap)

Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (haven't warmed to it yet, but Scraps says it's great, so I should probably make more of an effort, considering Modest Mouse has been close to my favorite rock band in recent years)

Panda Bear - Person Pitch (months later, still my record of the year)

*Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (sounds like a good Spoon album, which isn't a bad thing)

Vibracathedral Orchestra - Wisdom Thunderbolt (very good; quality drone music)

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Disquiet

My first Blog of Disquiet entry has been posted.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

On unexpectedly liking a Stephen Stills album

About two months ago, on our way back from a wedding in Rhode Island, we attended a reading at the Housing Works bookstore/café in the Village. Tom Breihan was reading from his contribution to the new book Marooned, an update to the Desert Island Discs idea. Tom is a friend of ours (his wife Bridget is Aimée’s best friend, and Aimée was maid of honor at their excellent wedding last week—congratulations Bridget and Tom!), and it was his first public reading, so we were happy to lend support. Tom’s essay is about Brand Nubian’s One For All. He was understandably nervous and began by disavowing his essay, explaining that he wasn’t happy with it, that he probably wouldn’t want One For All on a desert island, though he thinks the album is great, had been thinking about the album a lot when he was asked to contribute, etc. Possibly not the ideal gambit for your first public reading, I suggested later. But at least Tom read from his essay. What he read was enjoyable, and it made me want to hear the album. I remember Brand Nubian but have never, to my knowledge, heard their music, though I was just opening up to rap music when it came out in 1990, with A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy and De La Soul, among several other groups, all finding their way into my collection.

There were only a few other readers that night, and most of the rest didn’t even bother to read from their essays, instead either reading some bits of strained comedy or going on an extended rant. More famous contributors such as Greg Tate (Bitches Brew), Simon Reynolds (John Martyn’s Solid Air), or John Darnielle (a 3-cd compilation of Dionne Warwick’s music from the Eighties) were not in attendance. The extended rant was from a critic I had previously never heard of, Kandia Crazy Horse. According to Tom, she writes a lot about “jam bands” or the like. A cursory online search tells me that this is true enough.

Her reading: the album she'd chosen to write about for the book was Stephen Stills’ Manassas. I call her reading a rant because she didn’t read from her essay, but instead proceeded to talk at length about fashion and coolness. She was hypersensitive to how extremely uncool writing about Stephen Stills must be. She said some interesting things along the way about music trends and about being an African American female rock critic writing about unfashionable music, as well as a bunch of other stuff I can't remember. She seemed resentful, defensive, attempting to fend off future slights (perhaps in light of actual slights from the past of which I have no knowledge) and potential dismissals of her selection of the Stills record. I don’t know anything about her. I am sympathetic to her arguments against following pop trends. I can appreciate what she said about those times when the music you love, in relative obscurity (because no one’s listening to you), suddenly gets the spotlight, attracting new fans in droves and, worse, trend-hopping critics, only to be dropped again when the critical winds shift. But I admit I have a hard time wading through much of stuff like this, though it’s far from completely without interest. At the reading, I found her alternately interesting and boring, compelling and alienating. I wished she would talk more about the actual record and why it meant so much to her, instead of talking around the record, instead of anticipating the responses of others. But by the time she was done, I really wanted to hear it.

I confess that never expected to have the slightest interest in a Stephen Stills solo album. For one thing, the music he'd been associated with didn't thrill me: the ubiquity of "For What It's Worth" obscured its quality, and I didn't really like Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Another reason is that you have to draw the line somewhere. Recently at Pretty Goes with Pretty, I made the following comment (in the midst of a discussion about the Byrds): “I was perfectly happy not bothering with the Byrds. You can't listen to everything, so you have to make decisions, even unfair ones. The Byrds got dropped from serious consideration years ago. But now, dammit, I'm curious.” Early encounters consigned them to the effective dustbin in my mind (I hated "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and wasn't fond of their version of "Mr. Tambourine Man"), though later I suspected that if I took the time with them, I'd find a lot there to appreciate. With Stills, I found it easy to completely ignore not just his solo material, but anything related to Crosby, Stills, & Nash (other then Neil Young), as well as pretty much the entire wider array of early Seventies, LA-based, country-ish, folk-ish, singer-songwritery stuff--what I guess is called the "Laurel Canyon" sound, of which the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were principal antecedents. There were always exceptions, of course (Joni Mitchell, for one, though I’m hardly familiar with most of her music).

Last year, Woebot had two posts about the Laurel Canyon sound . The first was about ten lesser known records of the sound (with a heavy emphasis on ex-Byrds member Gene Clark, but also with Judee Sill), the second was about records that might have constituted responses or reactions of various kinds to the insularity of the style (its "near-autistic ignorance of outside music"). I enjoyed the posts, but also remember a slight sinking feeling upon reading them. On the one hand, I wanted to hear these records, to have an idea what he was talking about. On the other, I'd basically ignored this music and doubted I was up for an investigation at this late date. But here’s the thing: I am curious, though that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and buy some Bryds cds (though I might) or try to find all of the albums Woebot was talking about (though I already had one of the Judee Sill reissues) . I’m trying to unload music here, after all, not go down new, previously ignored pathways.

As I've blogged about previously, my formative years were spent listening primarily to classic rock, relatively limited aspects of it, it's turned out. My tastes were shaped by filtering through what got played on classic rock radio, Rolling Stone magazine's 1987 issue on the "100 best albums of the last 20 years", and books like The Worst Rock n'Roll Records of All Time. (With respect to this last item: we like to think we simply like what we like, with no pretense, no influence from the opinions of others, but that's not always true. When you're young, it might not even be true all that often. This book, as narrow and problematic as I later found it, when I was young helped give me permission to dislike major bands I'd had trouble with, such as The Doors and The Grateful Dead, and even now I find it difficult to shake the influence of some of the authors' general attitudes and assessments when finding myself curious about some previously ignored corner of music.) When I've filled in the blanks in recent years, it's been with, for example, the German bands, like Faust and Can; Brits like Robert Wyatt and Roy Harper; lost classics by the likes of Alexander Spence; relative obscurities like Sill; complete obscurities like Gary Higgins (I have definitely been susceptible to the various rounds of catalog discoveries and reissues). In the main, music that was not so well known in the US at the time of original release. I liked the idea of expanding my collection so that I might have access to a more diverse array of music than classic rock radio ever made room for. I would amuse myself with mix cds! Playlists!

But Stephen Stills' Manassas? Something in Kandia Crazy Horse's spiel made it seem like a record I personally needed to hear. Yet I'd never heard of the album, and I'm sure I never heard anything from it on the radio, nor seen mention of it anywhere else. Then I was in the Soundgarden here in Baltimore the other week, unloading a huge bag of music, and I saw a copy and decided to take a chance on it. As of today, I've listened to it straight through about a half dozen times, and friends, this is a great album. I mean it: great, loose, expansive. It was originally released in 1972 and is a double album (71 minutes on one cd), just like Exile On Main Street. Also like Exile On Main Street, it features rock, blues, and country, while throwing in some bluegrass and Latin music, as if they all belonged in the same place, which they do. I refer to Manassas as a Stills solo album, but really it was a collaborative effort, with seven people constituting the main band, chief among them former Byrds member Chris Hillman, who co-produced. Early favorites: the slow churning "Jet Set (Sigh)" (some excellent electric guitar here); the bluegrass, fiddle-dominated "Fallen Eagle"; the chiming folk of "Bound to Fall"; and the eight-minute rocker, "The Treasure (Take One)".

I don't know why this album disappeared; that kind of thing is so often a mystery. But it's better than a lot of records that have been canonized. Stills was very popular--I'd be surprised if the album didn't sell well the year of its release--but he may have worn thin with critics. His allmusic bio doesn't shed much light on what might have happened, though it does remind me of the odious (and massively popular) "Love the One You're With", which couldn't have helped. The critical focus on punk probably had its effect. Anyway, to finally wrap up here, if you like this kind of thing, you should check out Manassas.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Not going to make the cut

I've been trying to find a way into Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I've had it for years without being able to hear what others hear, but it's now or never, I've more or less arbitrarily decided. I've listened to it on the iPod, without success. I've taken it in the car, driven around with it. The occasionally catchy song aside, I’m not feeling it, I’m ready to sell it, give up on it. Yet I still feel some obligation to try further, to give it more time.

But . . . it’s boring. And I don't care about the goddamned two-headed boy. I hate describing music as boring.

I pick Aimée up from work. We're chatting about her day, when finally she interrupts herself and says, "What is this?"

Aimée's taste in music is fairly diverse. She loves Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre, Barbra Streisand and Dolly Parton. She loves the Mountain Goats and Smog; loves Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, the Beatles and the Stones. She’s partial to Bach and Beethoven and Chopin. She’s happy with most of the non-skronky jazz I have, though she doesn’t mind a little bit of the noise, in certain forms. For example, she likes Pavement and Sonic Youth just fine, but is not likely to have a good time with most Pelt or any Double Leopards (and definitely not with any Wolf Eyes, though by now I'm inclined to agree with her there).

"It’s Neutral Milk Hotel", I say, "I’ve been listening to it, trying to understand why all the indie rock fans think it’s like the best thing ever."

She turns it down. "It sounds like . . . what is that band I don’t like?"

"I . . . um, I don't know, there are so many." After a pause, "Wait, wait." I laugh: " . . . it does NOT sound like the Spin Doctors!"

"Yes it does!" She laughs. "It sounds like the Spin Doctors. Just like that other band." She'd previously compared Ted Leo & the Pharmacists to the Spin Doctors. I'd been enjoying my new Ted Leo cd (Hearts of Oak, my first), so I'd been duly appalled. She seems to get some special joy in comparing indie rock she doesn't like to the blandly evil Spin Doctors.

"You’re insane."

She starts singing the Spin Doctors' awful "Two Princes". I plead with her to stop; mercifully we soon arrive home. I pop out the Neutral Milk Hotel cd and ask her, holding up the case, "So . . . you don't like it either?"

I have a feeling the cd may not make it.

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Noted

In Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson, Nathan Zuckerman has been suffering from mysterious physical ailments--debilitating pain--and has not written anything since his controversial Carnovsky four years prior brought him fame and fortune--and scorn. He is blocked, unable to continue, ready to give it up:
However bad it was, always he'd pushed sanely on until a new alliance came along to help restore the old proportions. Only during the last half year had gloomy, frightening bouts of confusion seriously begun to erode the talent for steady living, and that wasn't from the pain alone: it was also from living without nursing a book that nursed him. In his former life he could never have imagined lasting a week without writing, he used to wonder how all the billions who didn't write could take the daily blizzard—all that beset them, such a saturation of the brain, and so little of it known or named. If he wasn't cultivating hypothetical Zuckermans he really had no more means than a fire hydrant to decipher his existence. But either there was no existence left to decipher or he was without sufficient imaginative power to convert into his fiction of seeming self-exposure what existence had now become. There was no rhetorical overlay left: he was bound and gagged by the real raw thing, ground down to his own unhypothetical nub. He could no longer pretend to be anyone else, and as a medium for his books he had ceased to be.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

iPod rundown - 10/11/07

1. Van Dyke Parks - "All Golden": It was inevitable that I would have Van Dyke Parks represented somewhere in my collection, given my musical interests (gushing praise from Davids Thomas and Grubbs being my specific point of entry, not so much the Brian Wilson connection). I have Song Cycle, which I believe is the best known record. Dunno. I probably have yet to give it the time it deserves, but it doesn't mean a whole lot to me. Strikes me as carnivalesque, corny.

2. (Smog) - "Natural Decline": A good, slow one from the underrated Rain on Lens. The lines that I caught from the end:

The mind is always working
Out ways to see
The things I shouldn't see
And have the things I shouldn't have
I see the night sky as a jewelry store window
And my mind is half a brick

3. Blaine L. Reininger - "Crash": Instrumental, from an album called Night Air. I must've downloaded it, though I have no idea where from. . . it's not bad, sounding perfectly ok in the middle of everything else. Don't know anything about the artist.

4. Pere Ubu - "Rhapsody in Pink": From Art of Walking. Possibly the least good Pere Ubu album, but still not without interest (actually, the later Worlds In Collision and Story of My Life are probably more likely candidates for least good Ubu albums--I honestly routinely forget that those two even exist, which is not a good sign for such a consistently compelling band). This track is a little demented: David Thomas warbling about being "a big pink ball at the bottom of the sea" where "all the fish came and looked at me" over repeated piano figure, slowly strummed guitar (Mayo Thompson) buried in the mix, gurgling and swirling sound effects. . .

5. Kristin Hersh - "San Francisco": Sky Motel, 1999, right in the middle of my full-blown obsession with all things Hersh. But have I gone off Hersh? I don't know. Probably not, but I haven't wanted to listen to her solo music in a while; haven't even bought the new one yet. The album seemed to fade from my memory pretty quickly. Hersh's voice is processed on this song, which you don't usually hear. The song is pleasant, short, drifts by…. Difficult to nail down.

6. Lou Reed - "The Blue Mask": I love the Velvet Underground, but oddly, I haven't paid much attention to Reed's solo albums. I think I bought The Blue Mask a few years ago, primarily because I'd been reading about guitarist Robert Quine. The song is harder-edged than most of the solo Reed I've heard, which again is surprisingly little (and I've not ever listened to Metal Machine Music).

7. Les Savy Fav - "Obsessed with the Excess": This is one of the singles from the Inches collection. I'm always reading that Les Savy Fav are one of those bands that you simply must catch live, that their live show is so amazing, so energetic, so insane, that their records don't do them any justice. Maybe. As it is, some of their albums have seemed sort of stiff (such as Go Forth), but then the songs collected here never did. Even so, I'm not likely to see them live at this point (are they even still around?). This song is representive enough of their raucous post-Fugazi sound (which is really the best you're going to get from me, sorry).

8. The Beta Band - "Inner Meet Me": The Three EPs was one of the first cds that Pitchfork clued me onto, back when the site was more attitude and enthusiasm than actual good music writing (with exceptions), but took itself less seriously. It's a good cd, though it's faded in my estimation over the years. Sort of Beatley classic rock stuff mixed with electronica and dance. This song achieves that incantation-like effect that a lot of their best songs do, where midway through it feels as if the song has been going on for hours and could continue for hours more, but you don't mind.

9. Basehead - "Shouldna Dunnit": Another mellow, loping, and extremely short track from Not In Kansas Anymore, but this one at least has rapping on it.

10. Califone - "Bottles and Bones (Shades and Sympathy)": I rather like Califone. Steeped in the blues (pleasing the classic rock fan in me), and with an experimental bent that gets them labeled "post-rock". Sort of a kitchen-sink, Captain Beefheart aesthetic (without the good Captain's Howlin' Wolf kind of voice). This track is fairly typical and appears on Roomsound.

11. Charalambides - "Magnolia": Unknown Spin. Damn, the shuffle loves this band. . . their early stuff (heard by me on the Our Bed Is Green reissue) was more compressed--bluesy stabs of guitar and organ. Here the guitar lines are longer, more angular, as they wind around each other (it sounds like two guitars). Just shy of the four minute mark, Christina Carter's (Wikipedia tells me she is now known as Christina Madonia) wordless vocals come in, snaking along, in and around the guitars, for the rest of the track's 9+ minutes. . . Quite nice.

12. McLusky - "She Will Only Bring You Happiness": Mclusky was a somewhat short-lived, deeply silly, kick-ass no-frills rock band from Cardiff. The song is from The Difference Between You and Me Is That I'm Not on Fire, is very catchy, features lyrics like "Note to invading aliens, avoid this town, like this town avoided us", and is notable for its closing "Our old singer is a sex criminal" round. Classy.

13. Latin Playboys - "New Zandu": I like Los Lobos just fine, but I don't think I enjoy any one of their albums as much as I do the first Latin Playboys cd. A side project with producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. I recently read a complaint that the album sounds more like song fragments than fully fleshed-out songs. I don't mind.

14. David Thomas & the Pedestrians - "Confuse Did": The Sound of Sand and Other Songs of the Pedestrians. Wow. I know I have a lot of David Thomas on this thing, but this is ridiculous. Richard Thompson played guitar on this album.

15. Paul Bley - "Seven": Homage to Carla. I've talked about Bley before and his amazing ability to create spontaneous melodies on the fly. Of course, here he's interpreting a Carla Bley song, so it's not quite on evidence; I am otherwise unfamiliar with it. All I can say is that Bley's performance is beautiful.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Talking Music

Brian Morton on his colleague and Penguin Guide to Jazz co-author Richard Cook, who recently died. Morton's heartfelt piece reminds me that a lot of jazz musicians have died this year. Max Roach, Andrew Hill, Alice Coltrane, Art Davis, Paul Rutherford, Joe Zawinal. To name just the few that come immediately to mind. RIP.

In his article, Morton mentions that he wishes he'd been able to talk with Cook about the recently discovered tapes of the Charles Mingus Sextet at Cornell, a set which he says "strikingly repositions Mingus’s discography and completely changes [his] views about that particular group". Marcello Carlin at The Church of Me wrote an excellent post about that very set (link via Destination: OUT). Other notable Church of Me posts from the last couple of months include this one on Ornette Coleman and this one on the recent Cecil Taylor/Anthony Braxton gig that excited much of the online jazz community.

Greg Tate on "Black Jazz in the Digital Age" (link via be.jazz). A snippet:
The problem with most jazz-hiphop hybrids to date is they proceed as if that riddle can be resolved by beats and technology when really the most remarkable, memorable, dramatic musical events in hiphop are the ones which derive from the form's most human elements, its mighty mouthed “pearls and gems of wisdom” dropping MCs and its superhuman beatboxers, like the one and only Rahzel who can somehow make the back of his Afro-Tuvan throat sound like two squabbling turntables and a light saber battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker at the same time. What would happen, I've wondered, if Rahzel was given, say, Trane's Meditations to extrapolate upon or Sun Ra's Atlantis: sounds like we'd never heard in our life, no doubt, at least not from the body of one human being. But in what context today would such an experimental collaborative foray between Black avant-gardes take place—on whose watch and under whose willpower?
Mark Richardson has another of his consistently excellent "Resonant Frequency" columns at Pitchfork, this time on LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends" and John Cale's cover of it (which I was previously unaware of and now must hear). Richardson is one of my favorite Pitchfork writers, and "All My Friends" is my favorite new song of this year. A good combination.

And, finally, Brandon Soderberg delves into the question of MIA and exploitation and politics, in "Notes on Otherness".

Update: As I was deciding on music to listen to while preparing for a friend's wedding this weekend, my gaze fell on the row of Pere Ubu cds, and I was reminded of Carl Wilson's thoughtful post from earlier this week after he caught Ubu live in Toronto. Frontman David Thomas seemed off, "didn't seem to want to be there", wasn't quite giving the audience the "series of orgasmic experiences" that are his goal. He himself made the latter point, and, Wilson thought, seemed to acknowledge that something was wrong. Others have been saying similar things about other shows. Wilson concludes:
Whether it was an off night or Thomas is having an off year, I trust that this is a transitional point, that he'll rediscover that sense of purpose for which, as he sings in "Dark," he's "agreed to pay the price." But some nights you see how high that price can be - when you come across a man who seemed to be born an immovable force, suddenly seeming eroded, a mountain worn down by rain.
I hope so. As much as I love Pere Ubu, I still have been unable to experience them live.

Speaking of Carl Wilson, in his post immediately preceding the one on Ubu, he announces that he has delivered his book to the people who publish the 33 1/3 series of books about individual classic (or not so classic) albums. These books have been talked about a lot, but very few of them interest me, mainly because I don't particularly care to read about individual albums at length. Oddly, though, Wilson's book does interest me. It's about Céline Dion, a singer that I strongly dislike, and who is generally critically reviled. And yet she's also immensely popular. Why is that? It always seems so easy to simply dismiss the tastes of others. From the Amazon description of Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste: "This book documents Carl Wilson's brave and unprecedented year-long quest to find his inner Céline Dion fan, and explores how we define ourselves in the light of what we call good and bad, what we love and what we hate." "Brave" seems a bit excessive, but maybe not. Anyway, I am fascinated about why we like the things we do, what informs our critical judgments and helps create our desires, not to mention the old questions about authenticity. I am definitely curious about this book. Read an excerpt here.

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Blogging Pessoa

At the instigation of Matthew Tiffany, of Condalmo, some of us will be writing about Fernando Pessoa's remarkable The Book of Disquiet. I received the book for Christmas, much to my delight, and have been reading it on and off for months. (For a taste, click on the Fernando Pessoa label below to read four passages I've posted at this blog.)

A few weeks ago, Matthew wrote that he was saving the book for when he "really need[ed] to be lost inside a book". I posted this comment in response:
Let me say that, in my opinion, it is NOT this kind of book. For me, it's perfect bedside reading, or perfect for when you want to read a few pages at a time, but in some respects it sort of resists getting "lost inside" of. I began reading it a few months ago and haven't finished it, but I have enjoyed it immensely and underlined many passages. There's not really a story to speak of, but there is a distinct consciousness, and it's wonderful.
Naturally, not everyone agrees, but this has (mostly) reflected my experience. I'll stop here; anything else I have to say about The Book of Disquiet will be posted at The Blog of Disquiet, which is now up and running. Please do drop by.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Problems with Handke

What is my difficulty with Peter Handke? Why does his prose resist me? Am I merely tired? I am often frustratingly tired, it's true. But, is it something else? Some manner in the telling? No: surely I must just be tired. But I have begun Repetition three times. Three times I have learned about Kobal's arrival in Jesenice in Yugoslavia. Three times I have encountered the details of his departure from his family, from his school. It is perhaps appropriate that I must repeat these steps, in a novel titled Repetition. Though that is likely too obvious a thing to say about it, too casual or glib a rationalization. My first pass, a few months ago, I made it 93 pages in. It's not quite right to say boredom set in, but perhaps exhaustion. That attempt was a struggle--the words resisted me, I was unable to to attend to them. I struggled to retain details, to follow the account. And yet it seems to me that Handke's style is not difficult, that I should not be having this problem.

What is my problem? For in this kind of failure, I do not hesitate to locate the problem with me. I desire absolute awakeness and a hermetically sealed, perfectly quiet room. I went to the library to read, in search of general silence, away from the temptations of my house (internet, music, food, cats). Failure. I decide to read something else.

In truth, I had a similar problem with Across. I was halfway through that short novel when something happened in the story, something important, something I missed. I'd felt as if I'd drifted to that point, skipping along the surface of the words, but feeling, still, as if I was in the presence of something real, yet something that was eluding me. I began again. I did better. I noticed things. But again the important event happened, and again I somehow skipped past it without attending to it. I cycled back through those pages a few more times before moving on. I eventually read through to the end and was able to write about my experience here.

In that writing, I focused on the word "threshold". Maybe this starting and failing and re-starting and cycling back is what I need in order to read Handke's fiction. The threshold I must cross as a reader.

Or maybe I simply need more sleep.

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Noted

Two passages in Memento Mori (1959), by Muriel Spark:
The thought crossed his mind, among other thoughts, that Jean's brain might be undergoing a softening process. He looked carefully at her eyes and saw the grey ring round the edge of the cornea, the arcus senilis. Nevertheless, it surrounded the main thing, a continuing intelligence among the ruins. (p. 63)

These thoughts overwhelmed Mrs. Pettigrew with that sense of having done a foolish thing against one's interests, which in some people stands for guilt. (pp. 79-80)

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