Sunday, August 24, 2008

bears and beer hats

Yup - it's that time of year, I'm off to New Hampshire for two weeks, to visit my folks and spent some time in the hills. As you can see, the beer hat is on standby, and I'll be wearing it sitting in an inner tube anchored off my sister's place on the Saco River in the White Mountains

I've been putting together some sketches of stuff I should be working on, with a fragment here; you might want to pause the guy yakking below for a moment. I've been messing about with a string quintet, a solo violin piece, and raiding my sketchbooks for ideas set to poetry for Riprap, but it seems to be going slow.

Also, for those of you who have never been, and likely to never be, up North, we have included a 'virtual walk' here below for your delectation, which, as the Thoreau fans among you will know, takes you up one of his routes, albeit in a somewhat nasal fashion with a hat no local would ever willingly wear. If you go to northern New England, never wear anything from LL Bean or any other catalog purporting to be outdoorsy. Especially those vests with lots of pockets for fishing stuff, even more so if they look new and you're not fishing. If you wear work boots, they should be left open outside of your jeans, and never, never laced to the top. If you must wear a baseball cap, make sure you've left it outside on top of the hood of the dead car in the back yard through at least six month's weather to acquire the proper patina. And borrow your brother-in-law's beat-up red Dodge pickup with the snowplow attachment to arrive in style......

see you in a couple of weeks. Mildenhall was good, by the way.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

blue suit + brown shoes = dissonance

In the mild mental fug before 7 am every day, after having walked the dog and stood like a tree and so on, there is always a short hiatus before I get organized to nuke some porridge (I discovered this a few years ago, rather than getting a bowl and a pot dirty, 3 and a half minutes, ping: throw in some some raisins and fruit . This has subtly changed my life, but I still haven't worked out how). This brief suspension of motion within the morning usually spent leaning back in the bench, with my feet up against the porch post, drinking coffee and reading the Gruaniad. The same every morning, rain or shine, most of the year, unless the wind is dead on southerly with rain. Then, the other day, I came across an article discussing modes of thought - and in passing, it made a statement something like "...or like music composition, with its chaotic, lateral patterns..."

This suddenly popped back up, bobbing like a stupid, happy, child's toy submarine surrounded by suds, clockwork key still turning, into my head while running scales days later in the evening (admittedly while reading the aforementioned paper again on the music stand - I have always figured that if I could read the paper and do my arpeggios, I had them taped) And I then had my own chaotic, lateral search through the pile of papers reserved for Jane's firings to see if I could find the article again. Nope.

"Chaotic and lateral".. sounds like a reasonable description of my default modus operandi, drifting from one thing to another like a bored six-year-old with the remote. As I mentioned before, I always felt that there should be a deep connectedness within anything I created, but this was never the case in practice. It sprung from my early, self-taught attempts to get to grips with the textbooks Schoenberg wrote concerning harmony, structure and counterpoint - and were disciplined and scary in the extreme. I think if you are self-taught, you often tend to be following models that have already gone out of fashion, as those models have had time to be codified and become part of the canon - but as soon as that happens, they are already passe. But all of this approach is really something that's been fostered on us by a now somewhat-outmoded High-Modernist/Serialist take on what makes an artwork legitimate: the idea of an all-encompassing 'organic' approach, (taken, in a way, from the rationalist project that followed on from the Enlightenment ) that all local and global elements should be contrived from a single unifying concept.

However, what made music prior to the 20th century interesting was the manipulation of dissonance, having clashing sonorities driving the line forward. you could therefore argue that by placing dissonant objects next to each other is a way of creating interest....such as two notes that shouldn't go together make you wait until something happens. This can also be extended to entire structural elements, as Stravinsky did. Brick wall transitions between things which have little in common create a different kind of drama to a slowly unfolding 'line' beloved by the late Romantics. Imagine constellations of color that slowly move around each other, revealing new combinations with each turn; children's blocks that are constantly re-assembled.

And finally, I'm just prepping the fixie up for the yearly Mildenhall 200k tomorrow morning - I was thinking of doing the 300, but I couldn't face the 4 am start. Lots of pasta tonight, couple of cans of beer; all good carbs. Should be good; an excuse to do nothing except ride a bike all day.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

structure and time.

yeah, I'm always avoiding discussing structure - it's been my weak point as an incredibly slack self-taught jazzer. I'm happy building stuff, or stripping and reassembling various things, such as the Walden hut, the Guzzi, or whatever. And I won't even begin talking about Italian bicycles, or fixed wheels - it would just get too wildly boring. Some other time, perhaps. But my main problem has always been this nagging feeling that I should be able to, in a long-range kind of way, justify each note. But it's not (probably) ever going to happen, so I've gotten used to it.

And also, being primarily a woodwind guy, I don't have problems imagining false fingerings, harmonics, altissimos and subtone stuff, thickened line and all the rest; but I've just spent the better part of the morning at the piano today trying to get my head around the possible combinations that a string player could create by using a arco double-stop combined with a left hand little finger pizzicato. Just sit quietly and think(especially if you're not a string player) about about it: perhaps the first finger could bridge a fifth on the A and E strings over the open D, giving you, say, a Bb and a D arco, while the second and third finger could extend the E string F to an F#, playing a kind of appoggiatura pizz between the F and F#... it could work - and so on. You can picture the bow running across two adjacent D & A strings, while the left hand performs assorted tasks on the E string... does my head in.

What I suppose this typifies is the two polarities of approaches to composing: allowing various formula dictate particular pitches, and let the sorry-assed muso's figure out a way of playing the shapes that result, or try and create gestures around the timbres possible by a particular instrument and its inherent sound world. Each has its advantages - the first might, possibly, 'show something new', throwing up combinations you wouldn't have thought of, while the second creates gestures and shapes beyond that of just re-combining notes, forcing you to imagine and re-hear material. One is coerced and pushing the envelope, the other manipulating the possible.

But that's symptomatic of western notation, which is in turn a reflection of how we view music (if you buy into a Chomsky-ish 'deep structure' world view); i.e., possible pitch-based hierarchies, rather than the way most other cultures notate sound, which is not an abstract pitched-based (for us, a middle C can be played on violin, piano, recorder, whatever and still retain what we consider its primary characteristic), but considered by the particular technical means to produce an individual timbre, pitch being just one of many considerations such as attack, delay, timbre and so on. It's a means and ends sort of thing.

Anway, I must get started on this violin thing.... and start sitting, ....and get the Guzzi running, get Riprap off the ground....and cycle more

and save all sentient beings.


Monday, August 11, 2008

poetry and, um... dirigibles.

For the last month or so, I've been reading and thinking about the issues around rhythm within spoken poetry, as opposed to how it appears on the page. And I had hoped that this would be an extended, cogent discussion of what might be done. But I keep constantly finding myself thinking about dirigibles, with them bumping their way into my awareness like affectionate puppies. Who doesn't have these problems?

This all started after watching the mash-up Zeppelins vs. Pterodactyls ; innocent enough, you'd think, with the dirigible quietly looming out of the clouds; inexorably nosing its way through misty skies, accompanied by a faint buzzing, like a giant electric razor. There are songs, machine guns, and choppsy 30's women, who occasionally scream (-this is the era of Fay Wray, remember) and of course zeppelins and pterodactyls. These lost giants of the air, confined to some grainy images from 30's newsreels, are only in a few films: I found myself trying to find the 1931 Frank Capra film Dirigible!, which starred Fay Wray and Jack Holt (who was famously drunk throughout all the filming) in an lighter-than-air thriller (a meringue of an adventure?) at the South Pole, shot entirely in New Jersey with detergent flakes. I have only been able to see this film once, and then only the first third, as my pianist showed up and insisted we leave for the gig. Insisted. Priorities?

Anyway, back to business - this idea of floating above the earth is not unlike being free of rhythmic constraints, detached from earthbound time frames, like in a dirigible ? (talk about a dodgy link, I was wondering how to get out of the first riff) One of the main things interested in is that the poets try not to conceive of their words as having a predetermined rhythmic bias. I've often asked Malcolm, in a completely dufus sort of way, about the apparent rhythm in one of his poems; he would then spend ages explaining it to me, I would glaze over trying to see it, and then I would perform it completely ignoring his advice. Some of the reading I'm doing points out the triumph of a completely visual experience that seems to have become more prevalent in the hangover after High Modernism, the kind of reductive approach of being able to analyze their work in purely lexical or visual terms. The thing is fixed, on the page, and ready for dissection, encouraging the view of poetry as a private act, rather than public performance, open to transgressive meanings. We can go a bit further with this with the idea of playing with structure later.

Think of it: if you look at the published sheet music for, say, My Funny Valentine, the song consists of plodding quarter and half notes, straight-up triadic harmony reinforcing a regular barline-constricted meter of 4/4. Played like this, very, very boring. Now listen to Miles' version, on the album of the same name.

more on this...


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Other stuff I feel guilty about: ah, the Guzzi...

While we're at it, apart from not sitting, (enough? at all?) there's lots of stuff to feel mildly guilty about - so today, I'll concentrate on the Guzzi; with which, I'll have to admit, I've just had a breakthrough, so it has swum back into the dim reaches of my consciousness after being rigorously repressed for the last two years; probably like Anthony Bates and his mum, with its carcass sitting slowly decomposing in the barn. (... I'll just go ask the never lets me do anything..)

I thought, when I had a break two years ago, I'd have all this time to sort it out to something like concours (dream on..) standard. All the alloy polished, the engine fettled, electrics sorted. That sound, of a big lazy twin, would prick up the ears of the cognoscenti like a dog hearing a whistle for dinner, as I blatted through the lanes of Suffolk in an adult, responsible manner on the way to work and gigs, my horn slung insouciantly across my back... right.

I had ridden this bike for 15 years all over the UK, to gigs , college and whatever; there was a covenant of responsibility on both sides - I would look after her in a bodgy kind of way, she would always get me home, on a single cylinder if need be (gasping, sucking air through the removed plug that would reside in my jacket for the journey home), but never ever let me down. Then that fateful last ride in a lowering winter evening, cold sleety rain: after a catalogue of minor upsets, the trans locked making a horrible tin-can-full-of nails kind of sound and she refused to shift out of 3rd, then the lights failed leaving me to limp home burning the clutch at every stop of the 25 mile ride, staying on back roads feeling my way along in the dark narrow lanes. We made it back, and as the rain grew heavier, I wearily sat on the porch in the dark after opening a beer, listening to the ticking of the cooling engine in the hiss of a rain turning to sleet. Finally, as I watched, with a final, resigned sigh, the sidestand broke off, and the bike (gracefully, it has to be said) collapsed into the gravel of the drive with a gentle crunch.. .. I knew our relationship had reached an impasse. I swore, then and there, that I would make things right, and we would once again ride through sunny, sweeping bends, touching the foot peg down and laughing together as we had in happier times.

this is the kind of guilt I have to live with on a daily basis.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

After Zen

Probably the most quietly moving book I've read in the last few years is After Zen, by Janwillem van de Wetering. It's one of those things that just stays with you, and a day or two after you've finished it you realize you're just going to have to read it again. It was recommended in the Hardcore Zen blog's obituary of him and seconded by Andy. Fragmented, delicate, and elusive, de Wetering's insistence that he's finished with the whole process of seeking satori or enlightenment through any kind of formal tradition makes you feel he's reached a place most would envy, but not recognize the arrival. Towards the latter part of his life, he ended up writing crime novels about a trio Dutch cops while living up in rural Maine; but in a so not Stephen King kind of way.

The interesting thing is the contrast between the Rinzai and Soto traditions, and his clear view of time spent in the Diatoku-ji at Kyoto, the same monastery as Gary Snyder and many other westerners studied at in the late 50's. Snyder comments that he felt the Rinzai tradition of solving a series of Koan would be more heroic the the 'just sitting' tradition of Soto. It seemed to be the one that most early zen-sters were attracted to. When I was young, it seemed like the way forward - struggling with Koan, getting whacked with a stick, sit in the early watches of the day; stub your toe, and (ha ha) hear the universe open up....I don't know now. Plus, the atmosphere at the school sounds very different and far more austere during this post-war period than those of the more westernized, pop-cultured sensei that followed in the alternate 60's and beyond. It makes you a bit more humble about crapping around in occasional sesshins....spacing out on your zafu for 20 minutes in the morning....most telling is the insistence that if you have a satori-ish experience you should forget it, ignore it. Leave it behind and, mai nichi-mai nichi , just continue daily focused zazen; that's all it's all about. Nothing dramatic happens, it just slowly gets slightly better, like in music, but at an incremental rate you can't really perceive. Anything else leads to unfortunate messianic cults.

Anyway, it makes you guilty about your sitting, or the lack of it. Having vowed to save all sentient beings, and even though I've been doing other types of meditation daily (the 72 inch one, for example... or standing around like a tree in the morning, or the daily 'two hours of long, very noisy Parker-san breath' is a particular favorite), I realize that it's just not good enough, compared to the Stankovian zendo daily routine required to understand that its actually not really required. I prefer the final scene in the Finding the Ox: entering the marketplace to see the wine seller (or "with helping hands" depending on your version - I like to think wine one - violation of the fifth precept)

Must be more organised.....