Monthly Archives: December 2013

At year’s end

Year’s end finds me doing the sorts of things I most enjoy: playing with collections, reading new stuff, listening to a wide spectrum of musics, eating/cooking wonderful food, messing with photography. Today I’ve been exploring a project on Borneo, making a database of the hundreds of albums I’ve gathered into Spotify playlists in the last 12 months, and keeping fires going in both woodstoves.

On the organizational front, I’ve just installed a new (3 TB!) Time Machine drive on my desktop computer, and done some of the housekeeping to reorganize the other backup drives that dangle from the machine. I still need a good backup strategy for the terabyte-plus of music files,

The books I’m actively working on include

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Hild: A Novel

Swann’s Way

Only Yesterday

Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?

River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History

All Change (Cazalet Chronicles)

Pogo: Bona Fide Balderdash

…and just finished Still Inside: the Tony Rice Story

Other regular reading includes The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Baffler, all in somewhat helter-skelter fashion. Lapham’s Quarterly will join the stable soon.

The Borneo project began as a waking dream about a week ago, as I found myself thinking about how I would teach a class centered on that always-fascinating corner of the world, with which my life has been entangled for about 50 years. Nobody wants such a course, but it’s been an interesting Gedankenexperiment to rehearse how I’d go about it. And almost needless to say, it’s as much a matter of how to approach the study of anyplace as an essay upon the island itself. And so (especially as I’ve been going to sleep) I’ve been turning over what I know (and what I’d like to know more about) in realms of geography and history and ethnology and trade and hydrology and ecology and demography and politics and musics and arts and epidemiology and agriculture and development and… A couple of days ago I spent a few hours interrogating JSTOR for articles on Kalimantan, from which I downloaded 20 or so, and I’ve been reading those, extracting juicy bits that fit into my evolving narrative, and starting to collect a bibliography of sources that I could get to at Harvard if I spent a day or so in those familiar libraries. This phase of information gathering is all very familiar territory, from years of teaching and preparing to teach, and even without any prospective audience it seems a constructive thing to be doing.

It’s been a very productive year for photography, and I’m anticipating a lot more in 2014. The just-acquired iPhone 5s has a remarkable camera, and my new Nikon D610 oozes potential too. And of course there are still a great many old negatives awaiting digitization. The question of audience continues to not trouble me: I’m content to put photos up on Flickr, and have no grander ambitions along the lines of gallery display or publication.

Just what to do with the music resources continues to baffle me. I’d love to share what I have with like-minded others, and I’d certainly like to expand my circle of musical acquaintances, but I don’t see pathways to either of those ends. I’ve made a list of the year’s Spotify playlists, which offers a glimpse at what I’ve been listening to in that medium.


Pretty much as long as I can remember (back to 1950 or so anyhow), Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachtshistorie has been an element in my [utterly secular] celebration of Christmas. My parents had an early LP

and over the years I’ve accumulated several different performances in different media (WorldCat lists nearly 100 scores and recordings). This year I’m listening to this version, via Spotify.

A bit of googling disclosed this description of context, which includes a link to a nice bilingual libretto and offers YouTube video of performance by the Monteverdi Chor Würzburg.


All sorts of people will tell you that mathematics and music have profoundly overlapping domains, and the most tiresome of those folks may say that music is entirely subsumed within mathematics. I’ve had (not to say enjoyed…) a lifelong struggle with mathematics, ‘getting it’ up to a point but then losing the ‘it’ and not being able to go further for a while. How many times have I tried to “teach myself calculus” only to founder on one rock or another… Just this morning I ran across a resource that would have made all sorts of things possible, if only I’d had it years ago:

Numberphile on YouTube

I happened upon it via a marvelous video in which Edward Frenkel takes on the question How did the NSA hack our emails?

If I had nothing else to do (i.e., if I didn’t have about 50 other interests I’m happily pursuing) I’d get out my Hofstadter books and dive in again. xkcd warns me what a silly thing that would be…

scrolling scores

Reading further in Gardiner’s Bach, I’ve arrived at his treatment of Bach’s first cantatas, written when he was in his early 20s. Christ lag in Todesbanden was, Gardiner thinks, “most likely composed for his probationary audition for the position of organist at Muhlhausen” (pg 131). The music itself is very familiar to me, via lots of iterations of Bach’s cantatas on vinyl when we lived in Nova Scotia and there was always music in the house, but I’ve never had occasion to make any study of this or any other cantata. I’m pleased to discover that YouTube has an animated version that allows me to follow along with the text:

Truth to tell, I can’t really grasp the harmonic ideas with both hands, but Gardiner’s description of the parts of the piece makes much more sense to me via the score than through ears alone.

why persecutest thou me?

I continue to nibble at Gardiner’s Bach, finding juicy nuggets every time. Today I happened upon his description of Schütz’s Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich, which I’d never heard (or might have heard, without paying any attention to the text):

Implied… in this quite stupendous work –a ‘sacred symphony’ lasting less than five minutes– is an imaginary mis en scène: of Paul on the road to Damascus… [Schütz] marshals his ensemble of six soloists, two obbligato violins, two four-part choirs… not just to depict the scene with pictorial effects, not to fill in the textual gaps by means of apt rhetorical figures, but to create a compelling psychodrama compressed into eighty bars of music. The result is an astonishing portrayal, every bit as striking in its way as Caravaggio’s altar painting…

OK, that’s arresting enough that I thought maybe YouTube would have the piece, and sure enough, complete with the Caravaggio painting and conducted by Gardiner himself:

And here’s Gardiner’s exegesis:

True to past practice when setting Christ’s words, Schütz employs his voices in pairs. They emerge from mysterious depths as a barely audible mutter in a four-fold repetition of Saul’s name, separated by rests, before transferring to the next terraced pair, each climbing through the space of an octave before evaporating in a wordless violin extension… What began as a quiet reproach, the voice of conscience, now grows into an accusation, the monosyllable punched out and tossed between the two halves of the double choir –to encircle and disorient the now-enfeebled Saul before the Was verfolgst du much is sped up in dizzying contracted rhythmic patterns and terraced echoes. Schütz’s purpose is to make sure that the listener gets caught up in the process and becomes equally disoriented. In performance (especially in a church with a long reverberation and with the musical forces deployed spatially) it can amount to an aural bombardment with a disturbing resemblance to the amplified noises of the torture chamber directed at the target from all sides, in all pitches and volumes. (pp 116-117)

Without the YouTube version I’d have thought Gardiner’s description pretty gripping, but the combination of text and audio and visual doth elevate the experience considerably. And Gardiner keeps pulling musical rabbits like this out of a whole forest of hats, which makes for slow going but potent education.

Gardiner’s Bach

I’m trying to figure out how/what to write about John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven, a book that I’m reading in short bursts because it’s so rich –like a small mountain of single-malt-filled chocolate truffles.

In more than 600 pages of smallish print there are hundreds of asterisked footnotes, 10 pages of chronology, 20 pages of notes and references, almost 30 pages of index, an 8-page glossary of musical terms, wodges of illustrations… The book is almost entirely concerned with Bach’s choral works, which are discussed in a level of detail that only a Conductor (and perhaps only John Eliot Gardiner…) could possibly attempt. I have only a tenuous grasp of music theory, no background in choral music, and no vocal training, but I continue to be riveted by Gardiner’s writing, and by the insights into Bach’s life and work on just about every page. Among materials that bear upon the book are:

a nice review from The Guardian.

In my podcast archives I have Gardiner talking about his Cantata Project:

And here’s a conversation between Gardiner and Philip Pullman, covering a lot of Bach territory:

YouTube has a 90-minute BBC special on Gardiner’s take on Bach’s life that’s supremely worth watching, and you can get a quick flavor of the tenor of this program in a bit more than a minute of Gardiner’s explication of a familiar portrait of Bach:

The whole 90 minutes:

The book is full of things I feel I should already have known, from basic facts (e.g., Martin Luther did his translation of the Bible into German in Eisenach, the town in which J.S. Bach was born a couple of hundred years later) to broad historical background (the wars of the Reformation fell especially heavily on Thuringia and Saxony) and ecclesiastical detail (Luther considered congregational singing to be an especially important part of worship).

On pretty much every page there’s the wherewithal for a dramatic enlargement of what the reader knows about music history and/or music theory. An example that sends me scurrying to Spotify to hear a piece that I’m not familiar with is this passage on Monteverdi:

[Monteverdi] recognized that the hitherto unexploited potential of what Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental bass line, giving it just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast. Melodic shapes and rhythmic patterns no longer needed to be tethered by the guy-ropes of rigid polyphonic structure. Before L’Orfeo no one had grasped this potential freedom to manoeuvre or used it to plot expressive rises and falls for singers that encouraged spontaneous spurts of movement; to rush, drag or clash against the metrical beat and regular strummings of the plucked continuo instruments. It was with L’Orfeo that Monteverdi made the decisive creative leap — from a pastoral play, intended to be sung and not spoken throughout, to a musical-drama with emotions generated and intensified by music. (pg 104)

and further

Some unconscious inkling of the way the senses vary and clash in their receptivity to visual, aural and tactile stimuli may have been at the root of the anxiety that churchmen on both sides of the denominational divide in 1600 felt about religion borrowing the clothes of secular theatre. They bridled at the infiltration of ‘operatic’ techniques within their walls and liturgy. Contemporary musicians found ways, as musicians invariably do, to skirt around these rigid functional categories and, magpie-fashion, to pick and steal just what attracted them, maintaining only the thinnest formal veneer for the sake of propriety, while choosing the frame, design and modes of expression… (pg 105)

I expect to be tempted to quote passages whenever I return to Gardiner’s Bach.

Recent photographs

I’m particularly fond of photographs that propose some sort of enigma, whose full narrative potential is only realized with the addition of something that’s not manifest in the image alone. ‘Whimsical misdirection’ seems like another earmark of this genre. I’ve done two such puzzle pictures in the last couple of days:

Orrs Island mystery

children at play

Another, taken a few weeks ago, is a rock creature whose rheumy eye seems to peer warily:
askance in BW
And here’s one that’s almost a portrait of a blond-bearded skull:
bearded skull

I’ve done a number of other creatures emerging from occultation –once seen, not easily unseen. A pluripotent realm for further exploration.

testing an mp3 player

This short piece resides in my Dropbox, and is the version of mid-August (further evolved since then, but not re-recorded yet):

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The plugin should facilitate the incorporation of audio bits in postings.

Dave Van Ronk

Among the Great Joys is discovering and reading books that further enlarge what I already know about subjects I’ve been following for a while. As a lifelong collector of fugitive materials and odd bits of knowledge, my own personal landscape of such subjects is pretty well populated, and for some areas the prospect is highly articulated —musics being a case in point. My holdings threaten to overflow shelves and disk space, but there’s always room for more, and any given subdomain is always open for elaboration, via sound, print, video, and my own experiments.

Lately I’ve been reading two books that at first glance might appear to have very little in common: John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven and Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir. The two are in very different registers: Gardiner’s is über-scholarly and quite long, while Van Ronk is breezy and colloquial. Both are loving recreations of past time and place, full of outward links and references to things and people one already has some familiarity with. Both are significant social/cultural documents all by themselves, and both provoke orgies of listening and further ferretings. I’ll try to tempt you to further explorations of Van Ronk in this post, and save Gardiner for later.

Van Ronk’s perspective on The Great Folk Scare of the early 1960s is Greenwich Village-centric, and sometimes at odds with the Cambridge-centric version that populates Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years, but there are many viable versions of those realities. YouTube has lots of Van Ronk, and this clip gives a pretty good taste of what the written memoir is like:

Van Ronk’s book is full of quotable bits, stories and commentary both. For example, he says of jazz ear-training:

…There are people you can’t fool, people who can tell you, “No, that’s not Ben Webster, that’s Coleman Hawkins,” or “That’s not Pres, that’s Paul Quinichette,” and be right every time, and to do that, you can’t just groove with the music. You have to listen with a focus and an intensity that normal people never use. But we weren’t normal people, we were musicians. To be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening… (pg. 10)

On toward the end of the book, Van Ronk offers this summary of the 60s folk era:

In fact, looking back on that period, very little of what got put down had much permanent value. There was a genuine artistic impulse, but the paradigms were flawed, and if you compare it to what was happening on Broadway in the 1930s, that scene was infinitely more creative and important than ours. The forms that were accepted as part of the folk matrix were too limited, both technically and in terms of staying power, and the ideology of the scene allowed for a great deal of sloppiness, which meant that nobody had to push themselves. Most of the songwriters were writing well below their abilities, and people who were capable of learning and employing more complicated harmonies and chord structures confined themselves to 1-4-5 changes. Some of them were enormously talented, but they were like an enormously talented boxer who insists on fighting with one hand behind his back. The result was that we produced a Bob Dylan, a Tom Paxton, a Phil Ochs, a bit later a Joni Mitchell –but we did not produce a Johann Sebastian Bach or a Duke Ellington…(pg 212-213)

I’m anticipating the release of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis a few days hence –it’s rooted in Van Ronk’s book, and I expect to love the film.

So I’m once again plunged into thinking about the ‘folk’ side of my musical interests, though I’m not much closer to a solution to the problem of organizing and interpreting their vastness.