30 nov 2006

Morton Feldman's writings on music are very profound.

His distate for "attack." In other words, he doesn't want music dominated by the front end of the note or by loud flashy dynamics. Think how much more interesting the decay of the note is than its onset.

His notion of a note as a "stencil." He didn't want the stereotype of an instrumental sound. He was hearing something more subtle in his mind.

All his interest in oriental rugs and painting, in musical sound as a visual surface.

He even out-Cages Cage.
The Spanish poet who I consider the best alive, Antonio Gamoneda, has just received the Premio Cervantes. (It's like the Nobel prize for writing in the Spanish language; they usually give it to a Latin American and a Spanish writer in alternating years.)

I was the first to write about Gamoneda in English, in my 1994 book The Poetics of Self-Consciousness. So evidently I knew something then, intuited it almost, because he was not all that well known at that point.
Pound is like the amateur better than all the professionals. He sets the standard, only to violate it himself in the semi-doggerel of the Confucian Odes. And then there's that dull didactic fervor, that humorlessness.

29 nov 2006

My Diacritics piece is out. You'll need access to Project Muse from a University Library to read it. If you really find the topic compelling I will send you an offprint, once I get them. It's on Paul Celan and a cont. span. poet, J.A. Valente, and issues of translation theory. The editorial process was long and protracted. I'm afraid to read the final product myself, fearing it's a little bloated.

Don't be confused by the 2004 date: it just came out last week.


Reading some Henri Meschonnic. I don't quite know what it's about yet. It has rhythm in the title but doesn't seem to really be about that in any recognizable sense. I know what he doesn't like, at least.
The most fascinating thing about rhythm is that we don't know what it is. I don't mean we're lacking in definitions. Obviously there are many definitions, but none seems wholly pertinent to the phenomenon itself. There are not even good metaphors for rhythm, that are not simply examples of it.
And the philanthropes, don't even get me started on those.

28 nov 2006

Does the misanthrope hate himself? Or does he think himself an exception?

21 nov 2006

Speaking of Topeka, it's Coleman Hawkins' birthday today.

20 nov 2006

A few prosodic principles.

1) The asymmetry principle. Even classical and neo-classical forms will involve huge areas of asymmetry and irregularity. (Conversation with David Shapiro inspired this one.)

2) Inexhaustibility. Even a seemingly limited number of permutations will permit seemingly endless variability.

3) Poverty of means. You only need a few "pitches" to make verse musical. That is, intonational contours, combined with all the other phrasal and accentual business, are enough to create greatly varied effects.

4) The critical gap. Most literary critics will never care enough about this stuff.

5) The "Topeka Principle." When driving toward Lawrence, Kansas and thinking too hard about these issues, you will miss the exit and end up 15 miles to the West in Topeka, and have to retrace your steps to get home.

All these principles are really versions of the same basic principle.

18 nov 2006

Carmen McCrae. That's another one for the list below.

16 nov 2006

Here are my favorite singers of jazz, in no particular order of preference. I can't rank them really. Did I do this before? If I did I apologize:

Dinah Washington. She's like Billie Holiday but with a stronger voice. Very bluesy even in her more popular facets. Check out "Dinah Jams."

Ray Charles. I know he isn't a "jazz singer" per se. It doesn't really matter to me. Make your own list if you don't like it,

Billie Holiday. That's pretty obvious. She is simply one of the great jazz musicians period.

Armstrong. Yes, I know he can be quite awful. I can't stand to hear "Hello Dolly" or "Mack the Knife." You have to go back to the early days to find better stuff by him. How about the duets with Ella? You can't beat those.

Nat King Cole. Ok. That's an interesting one. He is obviously a jazz musician, but is he a jazz singer? Or does his singing represent a turn away from jazz? I love his voice and his phrasing. He inspired the early Ray Charles, even. He is "jazz" even when he is not "jazz."

Ella Fitzgerald. Another obvious one. Get away from the novelty numbers and into the song books.

Billy Eckstine. The male Sarah Vaughn? You got to give him his due.

Sarah Vaughn. I love that over-the-top quality to her performances. There is the sheer power and range of her voice, but I prefer her when she is the most "swinging." I hated her "Send in the Clowns," maybe because I hate all of Sondheim's music.

Sinatra. Ok. Sinatra could be awful too, when he became his mannerisms. A lot of singers do that. I like him best with those Nelson Riddle string arrangements. Sweet.

Antonio Benedetti. Tony Bennett is the purest jazz singer among the Italian crooners. He has his mannerisms too. If you like those mannerisms you will like him.

Shirley Horn. Not for nothing was she Miles Davis' favorite singer.

Bessie Smith. This was jazz singing before there was jazz. It's the original source--or one of them at least.

This is a tricky category because it merges into plain old "pop" singing at a certain point--at one end--and into rhythm and blues at the other end. It's interesting that there are more pure jazz singers among the women, and more cross-overs among the men. Ella, Sarah, and Dinah are "jazzier" in the generic sense than Frank, Ray Chas., the later Armstrong, or Nat Cole--or even Mel Tormé, who doesn't make my list.

15 nov 2006

Not my 10 favorite jazz albums of all time (but pretty darn close

Lester Young and Teddy Wilson. Pres and Teddy.
Herbie Hancock. Empyrean Isles.
Miles Davis. Birth of the Cool. Kind of Blue. Miles Smiles.
Coltrane. Coltrane's Sound. Equinox. Soultrane.
Ornette Coleman. The Shape of Jazz to Come.
Bobby Hutcherson. Dialogue.
Art Tatum. Complete Capitol Recordings.
Cecil Taylor / Elvin Jones / Dewey Redman. Momentum Space.
Bill Evans. Waltz for Debby.
Rollins. Saxophone Collosus.
Charlie Parker (and Miles Davis). Bird Song.
Thelonious Monk. Brilliant Corners.
Art Blakey. Live at Birdland.
Roach and Clifford Brown. Study in Brown, etc...
Coleman Hawkins. The Hawk Flies High.
I'm bringing in music to my grad class. For example, Count Basie. Take the late 30s recording with Lester Young. The rhythm section is the most advanced of its time, with Walter Page and Jo Jones. (Don't forget, his full name was not Joseph but "Jonathan.") What makes it sound modern is the relatively even pulse of four quarter notes on the bass, rather than an up and down movement between the two halves of the measure. It's more of a 4 feel than a 2 feel. Still, the band might sound a little bit cornball to our ears today. But when Lester comes in for his solo, it's like something that could have been played yesterday. He sounds totally free, rhythmically speaking, though of course he is objectively playing in time with the band, in other words, referring to the beat enough so that there is no lack of synchronization and phrasing within the basic framework of the four or eight measure phrases. But his rhythmic concept is his own creation. Something unequalled to this day, except in Charlie Parker himself.

So what am I trying to teach here? Rhythm is not meter? Be attentive to theis kind of things? I think every educated person should know that a Blues has 12 measures.

Everyone else in my department feels that if you give too much versification, you will put students off. Because it is considered dry and technical. For me, it the very breath, the very substance of the thing. Don't get me started.
Ok. This will be my last post on prosody for a while. (Well, at least until later this afternoon or tomorrow morning.)

I think the situation in Spanish is even worse, in the sense that critics take a purely mechanical view of the subject, when they consider it at all. It's not that the mechanics are not interesting in themselves. They are, if you happen to be a prosody geek like me and seven other people in the world. The problem is that there have only been baby steps beyond that point.

The Spanish poet Carlos Piera is also a theoretical linguist and has some very nice articles on intonation and line-ending, which he was kind enough to send me. (For some reason he wrote them in English, which is nice for other linguists that might not know Spanish, but also means they won't have as much impact within Spain.} He has inspired me to write my article on the verse-paragraph. The idea has been rattling around my head for a while, and I'm ready to go with it now.

The idea is a very simple one: look at the verse beyond the level of the individual line of poetry. It seems astonishing that this has not been done (for Spanish.) Even in English only Richard Cureton really has developed a phrasal theory that also incorporates metrics. Needless to say Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse is my libro de cabecera. I don't know how many times I have checked that book out of the library.

There are 4 main possibilities for verse construction, in order of complexity.

1 (Mostly) end-stopped lines of the same length.
2 Lines of the same length, with frequent enjambment
3 Lines of unequal length, mostly end-stopped.
4 Lines of unequal length, with frequent enjambment
[5 = prose?]

So there are three variables: the metrical line, the intonational phrase, and the visual line ending. We can study the correspondence between the metrical line and the intonational phrase (in 1 and 2) without even taking into account line endings as a visual convention. Even in the case of (3) we don't really need line endings. We can just use punctuation! So only in (4) does the line ending really come into play--as more than a marker of what's already present in the implicit phonology of the text. We want to mark our lines in (2) in order to visually mark the syncopation between lines and phrases. In the case of (4), we need to enjambment because otherwise, it would be the same as (3).

Even the rhythmic structure of (1) could be incredibly complex, taking into account all the relevant factors. In fact, there is a certain "embarrassment of riches" or "law of diminishing returns" in (4), that ends up reducing complexity. Prose, after all, is more rhythmically complex, by this measure, but also less rhythmically interesting. My hypothesis is that (4) is the most interesting when it approaches the condition of (2) while also drawing on the resources of (3).

13 nov 2006

Someone asked me in the comments whether I really believe everyone should scan a line of verse in the same way. The short answer is ... maybe.

In other languages I'm familiar with scansion is not controversial. In other words, you can actually assign the accents or divide syllables into long or short in a rather mechanical way. The fact that English scansion is controversial at all shows that metrical theorists have screwed us up. I don't believe scansion should be all that controversial.

Everyone knows what a particular metrical pattern is. Everyone also knows how to pronounce words and phrases in his or her native language. Scansion is the attempt to reconcile the everyday pronunciation of a phrase with some underlying metrical pattern. The more difficult this is, the more metrical "tension" there is in the line. Lines with little or no metrical tension are comparatively rare--

Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow.

They aren't really a metrical "norm," then, or even an "ideal"--since a poem composed of such lines would not be ideal at all. In a way, they deviate from the norm simply by being too regular, and thus create a different sort of tension. The normal line has an average degree of approximation to the metrical grid. At the other extreme are lines that raise tension to the maximum degree, mostly by placing strong syllables in weak positions. Logically, the most disagreement over scansion will occur when metrical tension is at its highest. A line like "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art!" The contrasting pronouns make you want to say "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art." That works fine, because "I" is in a strong position--but not so smooth because "thou" shouldst be in a weak position. The first seven syllables of the line are also quite heavy. Not all of them are equally stressed, but none is light, and then the 8th, lighter syllable occupies a strong position! Then two more heavy syllables to conclude! (Weak syllables in heavy positions don't really cause as much of a sense of strain or tension.)

So what would it mean to say there is a difference of scansion in this line between different readers? A difference in pronunciation, or a difference in the interpretation or representation of phonological facts? I would argue that these differences wouldn't really amount to a lot. A verbal performance of the line that tried to make it sound like "Of hand, of foot..." wouldn't be very good, but you'd still feel a lot of "tension" because it would sound so stupid. In other words, we have to acknowledge, no matter what, that the line is heavy with monosyllables and metrically tense: once again Keats starts a sonnet with a metrically problematic and expressive line. The theoretical method by which you want to reconcile (or explain the difference between) the pattern with the actual pronunciation of the line doesn't really affect the "interpretation" of the line. For example, I would probably use the generative metrics of Kiparsky and the theory of English accent of Liberman & Prince. You might try an old style foot-substitution method. We'd both find a great deal of metrical tension.

9 nov 2006

HOW many bards gild the lapses of time!
A few of them have ever been the food
Of my delighted fancy, --I could brood
Over their beauties, earthly, or sublime:
And often, when I sit me down to rhyme,
These will in throngs before my mind intrude:
But no confusion, no disturbance rude
Do they occasion; 'tis a pleasing chime.
So the unnumber'd sounds that evening store;
The songs of birds--the whisp'ring of the leaves?
The voice of waters--the great bell that heaves
With solemn sound,--and thousand others more,
That distance of recognizance bereaves,
Make pleasing music, and not wild uproar.

Here is the classic statement of the poet sitting down to write while surrounded by the echoes of poets of the past. The first line is a metrical joke on the concept of "lapses of time," since it has ten syllables but is dactyilc rather than iambic: "How many bards gild the lapses of time / Give me a dollar, a nickel, a dime." Somehow, the poet doesn't explain how, these confusing throngs of voices do not form a disharmony, but a "pleasing chime." They all rhyme with one another when the poet sits down himself to rhyme.

So too with the "unnumber'd sounds" of the outside world. It's a nice pun: "unnumbered" meaning simultaneously "not subject to metrical laws" and "innumerable." This is the free verse of real life, unstructured and also boundless. Many sounds are indistinguishable because they are too distant ("that distance of recognizance bereaves"). This too makes a "pleasing music." There is a synthesis of all this sound--presumably in the poet's own sonnet. It's a funny simile because the tenor comes before the vehicle. It would make more sense to present the unstructured aural experience before the poet's own rhymes. Keats' sonnet makes me think of some posts of Dan Green's a little while ago on Dewey and the concept of art creating order out of chaos, "gilding the lapses" as it were. But I feel a more Cagean impulse here: finding artistic unity in life as it actually is, rather than (only) in formalized artistic representations.

It is never really explained how confusion is overcome here.
It's hard to believe there were only twenty years between Lester Young's break-out recordings with Count Basie (37-39) and Ornette's Atlantic recordings (59-60.) It would be like going from Scarlatti to Mahler in twenty years.

Or maybe not. The other interpretation would be to say that Young was already almost Bird-like, and Bird was already Ornette-like. Young and Hawkins were already be-boppers. Jo Jones was the original bop drummer. And Bird was the original avant-gardist. Of course we can't hear that aspect of his playing unless we've also heard Ornette.

Hard bop meant stepping back from the radicalism of bop.

8 nov 2006

Max Roach I think was the first drummer who phrased in a solo like a horn player would. The "melodic" element of his solos is well known. That is, he used the pitches of various drums to suggest the melody of the song, rather than soloing rhythmically without reference to what song he was playing. But since the melodic possibilities of the traps are limited, I think the more important factor is the way he constructed those almost singable rhythmic phrases out of that very poor melodic material.

Not only was he the first, but I don't think he's really been matched by any drummer since--as a pure soloist, and in this particular aspect: an improvisation that fits the structure of the song rather than a "drum solo."
Two words for you:

Lennie Tristano

I hadn't really listened to Tristano much, though Lee Konitz has always been one of my favorites. But I don't buy the Martin Williams line that Tristano's approach was simply a jazz dead end. They are doing a Tristano marathon in WKCR in New York which I listen to constantly streamed over the web. It is a real revelation, not least because of this wonderful Lee Konitz solo they are playing right this second. I like Warne Marsh too.

Don't forget that Miles put Konitz on The Birth of the Cool sessions. Hard bop and cool, West Coast jazz are complementary. It might be easy to set them against each other, hot vs. cool, black vs. White, East vs. West, but I don't necessarily see it like that. There are important cross currents. Plus it's the music I love the most. Bird comes out of Pres in his rhythmic approach, clearly. All the White tenor players of the 50s also come out of Lester Young. Lee Konitz has his own original and unmistakable sound that ultimately derives from the same sources. I could see Clifford Brown as a "cool" player complementary to Konitz.

It's clear that Lester was influenced by the "sweeter" sounds of some White players of the 20s and 30s. He loved fairly conventinal crooner of the period. That shows in his repetoire too. And look at Miles and Clifford, the two greatest interpreters of "ballads" of this period.

6 nov 2006

Short Macaronic Poems

¡Viva la Schadenfreude!


Aurea mediocritas... ¡Que coño!

5 nov 2006

I have this long-term project of developing and maintaining reading knowledge of all major Romance languages. Aside from my native level Spanish reading, I can pretty much follow most texts in French, Portuguese, and Catalan. My Italian is pretty shaky, though. I can get only about 70% of it. I read Il Castello dei destini incrociati recently in Italian (Calvino). If I went slow enough I was able get most of it if I went faster I missed more. With a dictionary and all the time in the world I could have gotten most all of it. Romanian seems a little harder. I could probably only get about 30% of it right now. Occitan is pretty much like Catalan, and Galego is pretty much Portuguese, so I am not worrying about those two. Plus, I can't find anything to read in modern Occitan.

There's a question of the comfort level. For example, I have found myself reading texts in English when I could have just as easily gone to the French. I have read novels in Spanish translation when I could have spent a teeny bit more effort and read them in Catalan.

There is a periphrastic past tense in Catalan with uses the verb "to go" plus the infinitive. Like "Vaig veure" for "I saw." I remember reading a novel in Catalan before I knew anything about the language, and at one moment during my reading a light-bulb going off. "Aha, that a past tense." Suddenly it made sense. Of course I had been trying to make it be a periphrastic future like we have in Spanish and English: "voy a ver" / "I'm going to see." I'm having those little moments in Italian too.

2 nov 2006

I never understood that "upper limit music lower limit speech" slogan until now. I'm still not sure I understand it like LZ understood it, but it means something to me. For me speech is the original music. Music had to have developed out of speech. Poetry and music are the only two things that have rhythm in the original sense (and dance, but dance almost always has music with it. You don't dance a rhythm, you dance to a rhythm.) But music tends to obliterate speech. Its rhythms are more powerfully immediate. So poetry is situated within a wide range between relatively unmusical speech (I say relatively because speech is always musical) and a kind of relatively nonverbal music ("relatively" because music always seems a form of speech; it always seems to be saying something even when it is instrumental.)

Like the word "phrase" that can be a linguistic phrase or a musical phrase, but nothing else. It applies only to these two domains and nowhere else, and has an equivalent meaning in both domains.

And don't forget "lower limit refrigerator magnet."

UPDATE: What makes one poem (or poet) cantabile and another not? That's a mystery.

1 nov 2006

My daughter Julia has given up writing poetry (for a while at least) and is an accomplished trumpet player. You should hear her run through the variations on the Carnival of Venice.