Monthly Archives: November 2020


This week’s Convivium Question came to me in this form:

? Where do YOUR ideas of how people ought to be come from ?

I think the foundations are laid well before adolescence, though surely influences and examples in teenage and after-years are significant as refinements and augmentations, and some people may experience basic changes at inflection points in later life–Road to Damascus conversion, or the discovery of Ayn Rand (ew…) … But the foundations are laid in ways that may be behind the conscious memories, and still be recoverable by thinking about, by examining evidence (for me that’s bookshelves and family photographs), some of which may be so well-buried as to remain inaccessible.

For some people it’s a matter of “learn from the teachers by negative example” as Mao said (“I’m NEVER going to be like her/him…”); for some it’s something that grows out of admiration, out of positive example. The child of mercurial parents, of a household suffused by anger, develops different expectations and coping mechanisms than the child whose early life is calm and nurturing. Imagine how somebody whose basic experience is being bullied would respond –say Donald Trump, or Prince Charles– or consider Queen Elizabeth, who learned DUTY from a very early age (this in the context of watching The Crown and The Windsors). And if Michael Apted’s ‘7 Up’ series isn’t in your repertoire, it SHOULD be: 7-63 Up.

And consider this from today’s Guardian:

Biographers have told how he was raised by his father to be a “killer” and regard losing as a sign of unforgivable weakness. The family attended a church whose pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, wrote the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking with advice to “stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding.”

I assume that we build our own personalities on notions of ‘how people ought to be’, though perhaps not very consciously. And I do wonder if ‘ought to be’ is different from ‘expect to be’, and how. We might read the Question as seeking the origins of a personal set of desirable virtues: “How people ought to be” is really asking how one ought to be oneself, since (however much we might deplore it) mostly others aren’t going to be how I think they ought. But the point of the Question is to recognize the models and inspirations of one’s own life, to acknowledge from whom one has learned to be.

I look forward to how you may unpack your own experiences. Here are some of mine:

Three Farmers again

It was almost 7 years ago that I wrote a blog post about my fascination with August Sander’s “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance”

and Richard Powers’ marvelous book (published in 1985) with the same title, which constructs an epic reading of the photograph. A couple of weeks ago the book was released as an Audible book, and I’ve been listening to it and re-reading my 1987 paperback too. The book has lost nothing of its power in those 33 years since I first read it.

That post followed one a week before, written while I was reading Powers’ Orfeo (2014), which contains this bit of insight:

…people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces… (Orfeo, page 2 or so)

In 2014 I wasn’t seeking rock faces (though that was the first year we visited Brittany, and I did photograph megaliths), but it was about that time that I discovered the 12th Imam on a rock in Martinsville, and that was probably the beginning of my engagement with faces in rocks:

12th Imam as first discovered

Since then I’ve done thousands of rock portraits, and just today we did an expedition to Marshall Point and I collected these:








of Silence

Yesterday the day began with this advice from Kate:

Establish what actually matters to you and then do that.
And support your local bookstore

What actually matters to me includes thinking things through and constructing summaries of the process, perhaps for an audience of one. The blog is a basically harmless venue for such maunderings, and has the advantage of being distributable to any like-minded others out there. So things like this have a home where they can be found again at need:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann
darüber muß man schweigen

Whereof one cannot speak
Thereof one must remain silent

…which has, among other things, to do with Silence, investigation of which has occupied me for the last couple of days. The subject came up via an eloquent post by Andy Ilachinski, which mentions “the infinite variety of silences that permeate existence” and references Notes on Silence and the accompanying film In Pursuit of Silence. I got and inhaled both.

And so I’ve spent the last couple of days bouncing around in various texts. Herewith some of my findings, each worth lingering over:

SILENCE and LICENSE are anagrams; both are forms of Freedom.


People think that their experiences are the reality and in fact, experiences are always interpretation, they’re always a construct. (Ross NS 264)

“Sound imposes a narrative on you and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.” (Maria Popova)


Any musician will tell you that the most important part of playing a piece of music, especially classical music, is the rests, the silences. (NS 276)

Louis Armstrong maintained that the important notes were the ones he didn’t play. (Popova)


“you are confronted with your inner noise, with your inner resistances.” (Sturtewagen NS 161)

“…persistent self-noise of the internal sort… ‘the interminable fizz of anxious thoughts or the self-regarding monologue’.” (Shen NS 207)


“I think it’s hard for us in the West to see silence as an end in itself… We think of silence as an absence and something negative…

Silence is like a rest in a piece of music—it’s not blank space, it’s a concrete space that’s filled with something other than words. (Pico Iyer NS 123)


“…as simple as shifting your attention from the things that cause noise in your life to the vast interior spaciousness which is our natural silence… the process of ungrasping, the process of opening your hand, of unclenching the fist…” (Ross IPS)


In a world of movement, stillness has become the great luxury. And in the world of distraction, it’s attention we’re hungering for. And in a world of noise silence calls us like a beautiful piece of music on the far side of the mountains. (Pico Iyer, IPS)


“Silence is a sound, a sound with many qualities… Silence is one of the loudest sounds and the heaviest sounds that you’re ever likely to hear.” (Evelyn Glennie)


“Modern people don’t feel moved or impressed just by living. In order to do so, we need to keep the silence and examine ourselves.” (Roshi Gensho Hozumi IPS)

Give up haste and activity. Close your mouth. Only then will you comprehend the spirit of Tâo. (Lao-tzu)

I also took this opportunity to reacquaint myself with R. Murray Schafer’s The Tuning of the World (“a pioneering exploration into the past history and present state of the most neglected aspect of our environment: the SOUNDSCAPE”), and to put my perceptual apparatus to work on the soundscape of a 4-mile trash picking up expedition. The sound of car and truck tires on the road was the loudest, most frequent, but still intermittent interruptor of silence; dogs barked at my passing in four places. My own footfalls were the regular punctuation of an otherwise almost entirely silent passage.

Schafer’s chapter on Silence provoked a brief dip into acoustical theory via Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), whose On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music is a still-relevant exploration of the psychophysics of sound. von Helmholtz distinguished ‘non-periodic vibrations’ as “noise”, distinct from the ‘periodic vibrations’ that characterize music. Others (among them Claude Shannon) developed the notion of signal-to-noise ratio as a measure of the operational health of an information system. Noise is generally formless, seems to carry very little information, is inclined to the random rather than the patterned, and is that which we try to edit out of soundscapes as we pass through them. Anechoic chambers are sound environments that reduce noise to a minimum. John Cage’s description of his experience in such a space

is perhaps an exaggeration (the high frequency may have been tinnitus), but the reported basic disorienting experience of hearing ONLY the sound within (the “persistent self-noise” cited above) is worth the price of admission.

Evelyn Glennie is another wonderful and inspiring re-discovery in the context of silence:

And here’s one of my favorite African music examples, a percussionist’s dream captured as University of Ghana postal workers cancelled stamps.

Earnest & Bogus enter the Time Warp

This bit of brilliance arrived a few days ago: Protobilly: The Minstrel & Tin Pan Alley DNA of Country Music 1892-2017. The Amazon précis:

This 3 CD reissue anthology is the first to track twentieth century American vernacular music of old time country, bluegrass, jazz and blues by tracing their beginnings in 19th century blackface minstrelsy and Tin Pan Alley.

Country Music is a genre driven by songwriting and publishing. This fact alone has given opportunity for songs to be refashioned again and again showcasing stylistic as well as lyrical changes over the past 100 years. The foundation of the American popular songbook traces its beginnings to the Vaudeville, Circus, Minstrel, Music Hall and Theater stages of the mid-late 1800s. The songs spread throughout the country and world creating a new musical tapestry that included both black and white performers of all backgrounds. Their songs and styles are presented in this three CD anthology.

By aligning performances from the earliest cylinder recordings with later 78 rpm, LP and CD versions, PROTOBILLY brings to life 81 historic recordings, more than half never before reissued…

Assembled by collectors and music scholars Henry Sapoznik, Dick Spottswood, David Giovannoni, and Dom Flemmons, this wowed me from the first cuts. I hadn’t realized that those Edison cylinders (and other brands too) had any relevance to the music recorded in the 78 era, or that the material captured in cylinder recordings had itself a considerable pedigree in sheet music and mid-19th century stage performance. Dom Flemmons puts it beautifully:

…songwriters, black and white, performed in the streets, theaters, music halls, medicine shows and circuses of a budding America reimagining the American Dream through song. The songs reflected and exaggerated the social climate of the world at that time. Like the internet memes of the digital era, Tin Pan Alley was not limited to unapologetically featuring songs that included ethnic humor lampooning working class people whether they be Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, African-American or Asian-American for the amusement of a paying audience. But it would be blackface minstrelsy, the songs that lampooned African-American experience, that would reach worldwide fame much to the chagrin of modern culture…

Black songsters pull songs of black buffoonery inside out and create humorous toasts of black ingenuity and excellency. Rural hillbilly singers take Broadway harmonies and give them the “high lonesome sound” of the Southern Mountains…

Here’s an example from Protobilly: The Arkansas Traveler seems to be datable as music and text from the 1850s, and was popularized on the vaudeville stage by Mose Case from the 1850s to 1880. There was a piano roll version by 1900, credited to Case. Here are three versions from Protobilly: Len Spencer (Edison cylinder 1902), Jilson Setters (Victor 78RPM 1928), and Clayton McMitchen & His Georgia Wildcats (Crown 78RPM 1932). And here’s a New Lost City Ramblers rendition:

The cylinder recordings I’ve heard before were so scratchy-noisy as to be almost unlistenable. The examples in the Protobilly compilation have been cleaned up beautifully, and I’m inspired to (re-)explore MAC’s (Michael Cumella) Antique Phonograph Music Program on WFMU, which has 23 years of archived programs (see list of artists played in those 23 years). MAC uses antique disk players, so you get a sense of how the original technology sounded to early 20th century ears.

Try this one: Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me (Esther Walker, 1919)
Spotify offers at least 100 variants of the song. Here are two:
Kweskin Jug Band and Sidney Bechet.

MAC did programs of cylinder recordings as well, with guest collectors. Try this one for a good introduction to cylinder technology (broadcast date April 15, 2003):