Tiny bits of information cross your path at all times and it is mesmerizing to realise how their apparently disparate voices can combine in the most beautiful seemingly random counterpoint. It may very well be that it is not random at all, that there is some higher order of wisdom involved, but I’m not a religious person; I’ll leave at our own inner search for higher grounds.
All this because, for no particular reason, I was looking at how Mozart’s works were listed and classified. Ludwig von Köchel published his Verzeichnis (German for List) in 1862, hence the K525 for the Serenade No. 13 in G, (Eine kleine Nachtmusik), or sometimes KV525 (as in Köchel Verzeichnis). Of course many other works were discovered after that but musicologists tend to revise Köchel’s work instead of proposing a new numbering system.
Really slowly now:
It so happens that Köchel also catalogued the works by a Johann Fux, composer and teacher of the late Baroque.
Fux is mostly known for his treatise on counterpoint called Gradus ad Parnassum (or Steps to Mount Parnassus) meant to teach the mathematical relationships of intervals as proportions between numbers and how they can translate into smaller and bigger half tones. In my (surely incomplete) understanding, it tries to establish a few ground rules on how create harmonically interdependent relationships between voices that have no common rhythm or pitch, the foundation of my beloved ricercares, fugues and canons.
That Haydn used Fux’s work obsessively to the point of recommending it to Beethoven or that Mozart’s father Leopold should have taught his son from the book or even that it was part of Bach’s extensive library of theoretical works was to me an obvious and marvelous surprise.
I am fully aware of my tendency to bore people to death with my wonder at how we all reach for an absolute, at our process of climbing the steps to Mount Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and home of the Muses of poetry, music, and learning (and incidentally the reason why Paris’ Montparnasse got its name) but can’t avoid being once again drawn into the warm and welcoming arms of the gorgeous melody of life: not only can we better ourselves, it also seems that we have no choice. We just need to listen and start climbing very slowly.
The voices we hear are all part of us and of something which is larger than us.
We are larger than ourselves.
Here’s a marvelous visual rendering of one of Fux’s exercises illustrating the conspiracy of mathematics, music and graphics to etch the counterpoint in me:
Another great example is Debussy’s satirical interpretation of this very point (ha!), included in his Children’s Corner:
Ad Parnassum before it’s too late (but it never is.)
I didn’t know that Wes Anderson had shot the short Hotel Chevalier a whole year before The Darjeeling Limited and that it somehow ties in with the film. This is the perfect occasion to admire his manic obsession with detail, geometric composition and camera movement (not to mention the always superb Natalie Portman of course.)
I had written the opening scene of Darjeeling, and then I wrote the short. Then I asked Jason and Roman if they wanted to work with me on the script. As we got going, I realized that Jason’s character in the short was the same character in the feature, and I started linking them together. And then we made the short a year before we shot the feature. (…) When it was all done, I didn’t want to incorporate the short into the movie. But I couldn’t decide how I wanted it to go. I wanted to play the short in front of the movie, but not always. Sometimes I preferred to watch the movie without the short. It became a puzzle to me. So in the end I decided that I would like to have the movie open in America without the short, but I would like people to have access to it if they want to see it first. So we put the short on iTunes. After a month, I’d like to feel it out and maybe add the short back to the feature. And it’ll definitely be on the DVD. Different people will see it in different ways, but I like that because they both stand on their own. At the same time, the feature kind of requires the short. Ideally, I wouldn’t mind if people watched the short and went to the movie the next day, or later that afternoon. I don’t know if they’re made to go right from one into the other.
Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures—and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection…
Lawrence Durrell — Bitter Lemons
Departures always hurt.
Departures are the unavoidable pain, the secret ingredient which ferments the superior balm.
Claude Monet — Marée Basse Devant Pourville (1882)
For keeping safe until the leaves start to fall.
I’ll need it to remember the the warm bright water and the afternoons when everything but the crickets seems to have surrendered to the heat of velvet lazily dressing the landscape and even the sounds, a world suspended where a minute such as this is both an eternity and its refreshing shadow.
I love that Max Richter describes SLEEP as “a manifesto for a slower pace of existence” (and it is intended to send the listener to sleep) and am really curious to listen to all eight hours of it, assuming I don’t fall asleep midway but then again that is exactly the purpose.
This isn’t something new in music, it goes back to Cage, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young, and it’s coming around again partly as a reaction to our speeded-up lives – we are all in need of a pause button
I also love that I know next to nothing about Richter — aside from his Vivaldi Recomposed of which I’m not sure to be a fan (the jury is still out on that one) — but the few details of his biography I’ve read this far (peppered with names like Future Sound of London, Roni Size, Tilda Swinton, Sigur Rós, Arvo Pärt and Haruki Murakami) announce a brilliant new exploration.
The release date is September, 4th (a one hour abridged version will also be available)
By coincidence, and much to my astonishment as I have been for years a staunch critic of that form of music, it so happened that I started attending a few free/improv jazz (don’t really know what to call it) concerts lately.
I guess it takes getting used to and especially experiencing it live.
The concert I’ve enjoyed most until now was a few days ago. First because it was performed by superior musicians — and the simple fact that I can now (subjectively) tell the difference between musicians that I like better than others is to me the ultimate surprise as I always thought of the whole thing as glorified noise where individual musicianship and the quest for a common vibe were simply irrelevant variables — and second because the music made me think so much and so incredibly clearly.
It started with the obvious question of structure and the lack of it: coming from a background of loud, simple and fast 4/4 tempos I have always thought of myself as a musician with a need for clear and linear boundaries, as if they defined the base from which I could elaborate and reach (or at least try) for more and more multiples of complexity. As if whichever absolute one pays allegiance to could be glimpsed in some strange attractor in a hidden fractal formula, one which needed simply to be codified.
It became stranger when I realised that not only had I been assuming this premise as obvious all my life but also that I only applied it to music. It never occurred to me that, looking at the way I live my life, structure is really the least of my yearnings or even talents. For some reason, amidst the dissonance (is it really one?) the paradox became so obvious that it made me smile.
“So, what about them?” I thought. That they live in a musical world of absolute fluidity with no bars no tempi no structure and no score doesn’t exclude the fact that they too are reaching for the absolute they pay allegiance to. This is what we all do and musicians especially have no choice but to do it, this prayer of sorts.
What was clear to me was that tempo is what made the difference and who am I, a complete virgin, to say that there is no tempo there? Maybe there is. Maybe I’ve spent too much time thinking about the discrete measures of time assuming that they’re infinitely divisible (which they are, but still by definition discrete) and that all those forms can somehow be combined to create ladders to climb to higher levels of aufhebung.
What struck me is that the music I was listening to, did have tempo. It’s just that I couldn’t process it. I wondered if tempo is fluid, continuous and analog after all, if my 4/4s and 13/8s and what have you are just crude (but much more powerful) representations of a pulse of infinite complexity, a pulse of a complexity that cannot, should not be understood.
As if what I was marveling at in those musicians was seeing how their form (because there is one however elusive) commanded that reaching a level of rational understanding immediately implied stepping into a greater unknown, a greater mystery where nothing is understood at all until the next level of understanding and then letting go again. As if pure feeling and musicianship were paradoxically the ultimate expression of both abandonment and supreme reasoning.
Bound but free but not, all this while they played.
I suppose I will never cease to be intrigued by how much easier it is to confess how I’m feeling to a perfect stranger rather than to the ones closer to me. It’s not that I don’t realise that there’s an explanation for it, I do: it is one about baggage attached to a familiar face or, in the case of the perfect stranger, the lack of it but it doesn’t make the whole affair any less intriguing.
Reading Stoner by John Williams made me feel like the stranger, someone who can but listen and is never allowed to retort.
It is simply a report of a life with no dramatic events of the kind that carry the plot to unexpected stories. It all happens in the same city and is focused around William Stoner’s ruminations, as he grows from a country boy to a university professor, about his parents, his family, his lover and his colleagues. It could be anyone’s life. It could be my own or yours with their failures and successes big and small and the pain that inevitably recedes into the distance and the shame and the joy and love.
The most accurate summary for the book would probably be “nothing happens” (and the point is driven home right on the opening paragraph), except that everything does. What truly happens is a lesson in refusing to let yourself be engulfed by those circles, wider each time, the circles of an increasingly blurred self, out of focus. A lesson in developing character, no matter how clumsily. A lesson in becoming more than just almost someone.
In that sense the story doesn’t need a retort at all. It is our story and we know it well:
He found himself trembling; as awkwardly as a boy he went around the coffee table and sat beside her. Tentatively, clumsily, their hands went out to each other; they clasped each other in an awkward, strained embrace; and for a long time they sat together without moving, as if any movement might let escape from them the strange and terrible thing that they held between them in a single grasp.
It has been a very long time since I’ve read a book which insinuates itself like an epiphany on my unsuspecting self or a disease which I can’t get rid of (maybe the same thing?)
In my own subjective and wholly unqualified ranking of masterpieces Franzen’s Freedom is instantly recognizable as a one if only for the microscopic and tender attention paid to every single detail, no matter how painful or casually exquisite. This is an unfair reduction however: there is at least Carver and Updike and Roth and even sometimes Dos Passos in his genes and a ruthless pursuit of mind-blowing prose and plot on every single page, paragraph and word.
It is significant to me that when I closed the last page there lingered that same bitter aftertaste that Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften left behind forever: it made me think of parts of me that I never knew were there or much less needed thinking about. It first made me angry at discovering that no moment is ever trivial and then sad at the fundamental impossibility of cataloguing them all and then at peace at the prospect of the depths to which one can navigate to consider just a single one of those moments.
The tripe which surrounds us is not obvious, it being the bland, processed and artificial manifestation of sentiments like those. Not an easy foliage to shed.
Freedom helps. Simply and immensely.
And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after life was lost, and let her see all the vileness inside him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they’d ever said or done, every pain they’d inflicted, every joy they’d shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind.
I suppose that I could try to explain the thrill of the first piano chords of Gloria, while Patti slowly slurs “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” — an anticipation of a long build-up which explodes like an angry orgasm five minutes later, complete with all the tender moments, false warnings and crescendos that almost get there but need to be reined in for the sake of the final blast.
The catch is precisely that by trying to do so I’d end up killing my own memory of that rush and I don’t want to relinquish any part of it.
Not the sweaty jumping around next to a potential girl-friend at some high school party and not the yelling of the lyrics at the top of my lungs with a sense of freedom that only a teenager can hope to achieve in the process of defining the cornerstones of his musical fabric.
I could never appropriately describe Lenny Kaye’s focused and intense presence on stage, not Jay Dee Daugherty’s precise, powerful and agile drumming which marked me forever, but especially not Patti’s luminescence, raw, angry and mischievous, punctuating what was to me a sonic revelation with chosen bits of beat- and 19th century french poetry, a surprisingly fitting combination on the first punk rock concert I ever attended. And I use the term “punk rock” very very loosely here since she was then already so much more than that.
It is confusing to me that she should have become famous for the song Because the Night (which is technically Bruce Springsteen’s and the 3 minute predictable pop-song structure shows) on what I consider to be one of her weakest albums, Easter ( I refuse to discuss Wave for reasons that should be obvious.) Curiously enough it is precisely on Easter that she and the band achieve something of almost Gloria greatness: Babelogue/Rock’n Roll Nigger is both monumental and monumentally ignored and the only reason I own that record in the first place.
It is because of all this that I don’t want to go back in time and in the process destroy my teenage self (or at least those parts which would conceivably be worth preserving.) I’ll keep on believing that both Horses and Radio Ethiopia were composed and produced specifically with the purpose of giving me a soundtrack to those years of my life.
What does it mean to be yourself?” he asked. “If it means to do what you think you ought to do, then you’re doing that already. If it means to act like you’re exempt from society’s influence, that’s the worst advice in the world; you would probably stop bathing and wearing clothes. The advice to ‘be yourself’ is obviously nonsense. But our brains accept this tripe as wisdom because it is more comfortable to believe we have a strategy for life than to believe we have no idea how to behave.
I’m not entirely sure which gods I have to thank for the profusion of women both drop dead gorgeous and powerful in my life, all the while wondering if I deserved it at all; just the thought of having to play football (the sport you play with your feet, not the other one) with sons and grandsons would be enough to make me reach for the gin bottle.