Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis: Satie and Time

I’m starting a new series of posts dedicated to exploring references to and uses of music within children’s literature, specifically picture books. Music functions richly within the intermedial dynamics of picture books, which Perry Nodelman describes as an art form demanding constant alteration between two modes of communication—visual and textual— and “as a result of these unusual features, [they] have unique rhythms, unique conventions of shape and structure, a unique body of narrative techniques” (Nodelman, 1988, viii). Adding music to this unique textual and visual genre provides yet another mode of communication, which both compliments and complicates an already wonderful genre. Let us begin!

du iz tak1.JPG

Du Is Tak?

by Carson Ellis

Candlewick Press (2016)

Picture: This is a visually gorgeous picture book. Ellis frames up an insect-sized scene of an old log, and lingers there for the entirety of the book while seasons shift, adventures ensue, life is lived. The passage and cyclicality of time are of foremost importance: a single green plant provides the dapperly dressed invertebrate characters with many opportunities to experience the gamut of life’s emotions (puzzlement, excitement, leisure, horror, joy, letting go); a flamboyant caterpillar disappears into a cocoon in the first pages, metamorphosing near the end, and is followed by a second caterpillar at the close; and shifting seasons bring about changes to the foliage and landscape, most dramatically in the cleansing blankness of a winter’s snow.

Text: Ellis pairs these pictures with a delightfully innovative conlang (constructed language) of her own devising. (It appears to be nominally Germanic in syntax and phonology.) Readers are invited to speak “nonsense words” that are given meaning by the pictures. This technique highlights the nonverbal (shall I say “musical”?) power of communication through such things as gesture, intonation, addressee, and context.

Music: The bulk of the action happens in scenes of daylight. Yet three panels present us with a nocturnal version of the world: muted and dark colors, a starry night sky, and an absence of all characters apart from a single grasshopper perched upon a branch of the log directly over the caterpillar’s cocoon. In his [four] arms he holds a violin, which he plays introspectively, head bowed, eyes closed. Ellis employs a common technique: a string of musical notes emanates from the instrument and into the air. Remarkably, the notation symbols are not random (most examples are!). In the first two night scenes Ellis uses an eight-note rhythmic pattern made up of grace notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, and half notes that then repeats. Additionally, she provides a general melodic contour that gives enough information to show us that the notes are a quotation of a real piece of music: Gnossienne No. 1 by Erik Satie.

The second night scene with grasshopper and Gnossienne No. 1.

The second night scene with grasshopper and Gnossienne No. 1.

Erik Satie (1866–1925) was a French composer who was influential for his avant-garde experiments that modernistically challenged musical tradition and expectations. (He wrote minimalist background music which he termed musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”), included cheeky/ironic/impossible/overly dramatic narrations (in-score texts) in his music, and took as his programmatic subjects such things as the social lives and adventures of sea cucumbers.) Satie constructed his own cryptic term “Gnossienne” in three (perhaps seven?) compositions that share several generic characteristics: slow tempos, no barlines (known as “free time”), unconventional forms/melodies/harmonies, and strange in-score texts.

In the first two night scenes, Ellis’ grasshopper plays the opening theme of Gnossienne No. 1. I find the music hovering, yet heavy, improvisatory, as though playing with and reacting to half-remembered fragments. Follow along to a recording with sheet music performed by Klara Kormendi.

  1. The third night scene directly follows the second. In the face of the decaying flower, we witness the dramatic release of the transformed caterpillar, which bursts out of its cocoon as a dancing moth. Eyes closed, she is the introspective one now, absorbed in the soaring exuberance of her dance. The grasshopper is on his feet, leaning forward eagerly, eyes wide and fixed upon this wonderful sight. He continues to play, but his tune has changed to match the sweeping gestures of the moth: twenty-five eighth-notes concluded by a dotted quarter note.

The third night scene with grasshopper/moth and Gnossienne No. 3.

The third night scene with grasshopper/moth and Gnossienne No. 3.

Again, Ellis quotes Satie, this time Gnossienne No. 3. The third theme (fragment?) of this piece builds up momentum in a cascading sort of way, and bears the mysterious in-score text “Munissez-vous de clairvoyance” (“Acquire clairvoyance”). The grasshopper seems to be in the process of “seeing clearly”, standing as it were upon the overlap between life and death, gazing at the resurrected Muse, reifying the power of the moment with music that is both free of time and full of repetition. Listen to the performance by Daniel Versano starting at 0:35.

Ellis masterfully communicates through the richness of the picture book genre. Her static frame allows us to notice fine details and dwell upon growth and decay, life and death. Her invented language prompts us to find significance within/beyond/despite words. Music is hidden in this picture book, frozen as a string of symbols leaping from a grasshopper’s violin, yet the quotations of Satie’s haunting compositions, once deciphered, invite us to imagine unheard melodies that bind together memories, emotions, and meanings in new ways. May we all have eyes to see clearly and the courage to play our song in all of life’s seasons.

Holiday Blessing: Samin Nosrat, Good Tidings, and "Feuch"

The holidays are here, and with them are all the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Between last weekend’s pre-Thanksgiving hosted lunch with my parents (lemon chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans, cranberry relish, herb rolls, and pumpkin pie), the bags of aromatic delectables from Apple Hill sitting here on the counter (fritters, donuts, and Fujis), and Jess and Kathy brainstorming potential dessert and vegetable options online (I believe a pumpkin pie à la Zoe Bakes is in the works), I’m feeling the love. Because I’m off from work this week, my mind seems particularly open, and I made a wonderful connection about three seemingly unconnected things.


Samin Nosrat

Jess and I have been enjoying Berkeley-based chef Samin Nosrat immensely. Jess has her cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, on the shelf (which strives for a freeing sense of wabi-sabi through Wendy MacNaughton’s hand-drawn illustrations), and the Netflix documentary of the same name provided a beautiful, inspiring, and informative investigation of her four foundational cooking concepts. She contends that mastering salt, fat, acid, and heat is not merely a matter of following a recipe, but part of a larger practice of learning to hone and trust your senses.

Samin Nosrat cooking while smiling! Yum!

Samin Nosrat cooking while smiling! Yum!

An interview she gave on Discourse entitled “Engaging the Senses” extend this idea into her philosophy of cooking, in which she sees the kitchen as a place where all people can be welcome because everyone can use their senses.

I think it’s about engaging the senses. That’s something my cooking really focuses on: using your senses to become a better cook. Cooking really does engage all of your senses — at least, good cooking does — but for the most part, I feel like I’ve spent the last fifteen years honing, above all, my senses of taste and smell. —S.N.

Because everyone has the capacity to improve their senses, Samin contends that anyone can cook. This viewpoint transforms the kitchen from something potentially shameful to a place where humanization and amateurism invite participation from all. I love this idea and see many parallels to the ways that I understand musicology, language learning directing choirs…


Good Tidings

My Providence School choirs are in full Christmas music tilt. I’ve taken the traditional “Nine Lessons and Carols” service that has been done in the past and changed it to allow for more instrumentalists and different choral repertoire. I’m calling it “Come to the Cradle: A Service of Lessons and Carols”, and the great majority of the music focuses on various aspects of the postpartum manger, especially the visitation of the shepherds.

Christina Saj,  Shepherd

Christina Saj, Shepherd


This had me reading through the second chapter of Luke for inspiration; if you’re familiar with Linus’ King James monologue from the Peanut’s Christmas Special, one scene goes something like this:

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

However, I tend to read the Bible in different translations, especially non-English ones; I find that this sort of alienated reading is a practice that breathes new life into old stories in humbling and challenging ways. As I read through Luke 2:9-11 in my Scottish Gaelic translation, a certain word popped out at me…


“Feuch”

The Gàidhlig translation that I own, Am Bìoball Gàidhlig 1992, is written in a somewhat archaic style (both ABG and KJV begin almost every sentence with the word “and”/“agus”), and the imperative verb “feuch” (pronounced IPA: [fiax]) pops up twice in that section of Luke 2, corresponding to the KJV “lo” and “behold” that I underlined above. I looked the word up in the LearnGaelic Dictionary and found that it is particularly rich in meanings:

1 feel! (test by feeling)
2 taste! (test by tasting)
3 try, attempt!
4 test!
5 behold, look, lo!
6 reconnoitre!
7 rummage!

The spirit of this word extends far beyond the observational (and archaic) sense that I get from “lo” and “behold”. “Feuch” is dynamic! It involves the senses of touch, taste, and sight; it is messy and exploratory; and it implies a learning curve without any actual guarantee of success.

An illustration by Scottish-born artist Jessie Marion King (1875–1949) from the book  The Fisherman and His Soul .

An illustration by Scottish-born artist Jessie Marion King (1875–1949) from the book The Fisherman and His Soul.


The angel commands the shepherds to “feuch”, to engage deeply and bodily with the good news of the Savior’s arrival, pushing the boundaries of the known and hoped for. Luke the narrator challenges his readers to “feuch”, to rummage and reconnoitre through their minds to understand the palpable intensity of a supernatural encounter that entered reality from seemingly nowhere. And Samin reminds us to “feach”, to seek our way towards a sensitivity to the smells and sounds of cooking and the human connection that such an activity brings.

This holiday, may we all be present to what is immanent, simple things, true things.






The Sacred Music of Harry Potter: The Hogwarts School Song

For the past decade my wife, Jess, and I have cultivated an evening ritual in which she prepares dinner while I read a book out loud: the sights, smells, and sounds of stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and barbecued kebabs mingling with spirited performances of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madeline l'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. One author who has received special attention is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series has received no less than seven complete and enthusiastic renditions in ten years and we are currently knee deep in Book Four for the eighth time! The books are like old friends and have been a rich source of comfort, entertainment, thoughtfulness, and extemporaneous nonsense.

Unknown artist. Dumbledore  would  own a combustable bird...

Unknown artist. Dumbledore would own a combustable bird...

This year I've also been enjoying a podcast entitled "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text". The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, ask us to consider what might happen if we were to take the Harry Potter series and treat it with the same seriousness and devotion as when we read a sacred text. What might a piece of fiction reveal or teach, convict or inspire if we were to approach it with the expectation that by engaging with it we engage with something sacred? I find this project fascinating, whether or not I agree with their various readings, and it has inspired a whole new host of conversations at home.

For a while I have been interested in blogging about the role of music in the Harry Potter books. In the spirit of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I'm going to try this out by selecting a music-related excerpt from the books and reading it through the lens of a sacred reading technique. I'll be using lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice that follows a four-step process of reading, mediating, conversing, and praying to enter into a sacred text. I'll be using the altered format that is employed in the podcast along with my own additional step:

  1. Context: What is happening in the story when this excerpt occurs?
  2. Musicology [MINE]: What might this music sound like and what ideas are associated with it?
  3. Metaphor: What imagery or associations does this excerpt suggest?
  4. Personal: What personal memories does this excerpt recall?
  5. Action: What does this excerpt motivate you to do in your life?

Here goes!

You may recognize this first passage as that poster on the wall of every junior high band room.

"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"
Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

1. Context

This quote appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US version, page 128), Chapter Seven "The Sorting Hat" and is spoken by the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is the start of another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the new students have been separated into their houses by the Sorting Hat and are sitting at their various House Tables in the enchantedly open-aired Great Hall. The customary feast that celebrates the start of term has been voraciously consumed, the golden plates magically cleaned, and Dumbledore has given out announcements both perfunctory and mysterious. As a benedictory gesture the headmaster leads the student body in a performance of the Hogwarts school song. Uniquely, the students were not taught the music to the song either by rote or by notation; after writing the words to the song in the air with a golden ribbon, Dumbledore declares, "Everyone pick their favorite tune and off we go!" Rowling continues, "Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest." After this Dumbledore delivers the excerpted quote and then excuses everyone to bed.

 

2. Musicology

Technically the musical event that Rowling describes is an instance of aleatoric polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous sounding of more than one distinct melody. For instance, in "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" from Jesu, meine Freude by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) five different melodies vie for your attention, each entering one at a time with the same theme before doing their own thing. This type of texture is more challenging to listen to than, say, a song with a clear melody over a clear accompaniment, and you may need some practice for your ears to make sense of it all. The good new is that, in this instance, and likewise for countless other examples of polyphony written in a certain idiom (ie tonal music), the challenge of listening to individual voices simultaneously is lessened by the fact that everything occurs within a stable harmonic and metric framework. This means that the dense texture actually has a solid and carefully crafted harmony that controls the vertical aspect of the pitches and a solid and carefully crafted meter that controls the horizontal aspect of the rhythm. Put more simply, it all lines up.

However, there are some extremely conflicted instances of polyphony, especially from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (ie not tonal music), where this harmonic and metric framework is lacking. Chaos reigns supreme! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) depicts pandemonium with a creepy polyphonic beginning to his Second Symphony with thirteen extremely independent voices, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote his Third String Quartet to sound like two pairs of instruments that just happened to start playing completely different pieces in the same room at the same time, and Andrew Norman (b. 1979) musicalized the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Bernini in the "Teresa" movement of his The Companion Guide to Rome with extreme polyphonic madness.* However, I think the piece that gets us closest to the Hogwarts school song, remarkably, is from 1673: Battalia for ten string instruments by the surprisingly modernistic Baroque composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The second section of this piece, entitled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor," instrumentally depicts a mass of soldiers, perhaps inebriated, definitely enjoying themselves, singing ten different songs simultaneously. For each instrument, Biber composed a different song at different speeds, keys, and rhythms, ending on a triumphant cluster chord. Yikes! Check out this link and listen from 1:44 to 2:30

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

Yet, as dissonant as Biber's example is, all of these polyphonic examples fail to truly represent the chaos of the Hogwarts school song because none of them are aleatoric.** Aleatoric music is music in which some elements are intentionally left to chance and the performer chooses what to play in the moment of performance. The composer could, for instance, indicate that a melody is supposed to rise in an arc and come back down after a given amount of time, but not specify the pitches, rhythm, articulation, or character. Such music could hardly ever be played the same way twice and the whole idea blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a very avant-garde sort of way. John Cage (1912-1992) stated that in his Concert for Piano and Orchestra "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent." He leaves just about everything you can imagine to chance and choice, including melodies, textures, instrumentation, and duration. Here are three vastly different performances of the same aleatoric "work": 1) Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio Flamande, 2) Orchestra Laboratorio del Conservatorio di Alessandria, and 3) Chironomids Outerspace Group.

The singing of the Hogwarts school song is a an extreme case of avant-garde chaosDepending on how you count, there could be as many as 300 to 2000 individual voices, each singing any melody, in any key, and at any tempo. This is not some stately rendition of a venerable alma mater. This is aleatoric polyphony at black hole density!*** Dumbledore obviously does not have the same ideas of institutional prestige as other Headmasters.


*My guess is that Dumbledore regularly listens to Elliott and Norman in his office, with his fingers lightly pressed together. His Chocolate Frog Card does specify that he enjoys chamber music!

**This is why the cut scene from the fourth Harry Potter movie by Warner Brothers (and I assume by the score composer Patrick Doyle) doesn't do Rowling justice. If you watch it, you'll notice that, while spirited and rather noisy, it's really only a canon. Polyphonic? Yes. But not even close to the chaos described!

***Can someone please attempt to recreate this event and record it?!?! Send me a video!!

 

3. Metaphor

I read the theme of participation in this excerpt.

First, the participation of the students. The start of term feast is full of identity formation. Students become Gryffindors or Slytherins or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, four distinct Houses separated from the others by personality traits, founder histories, dormitory locations, eating arrangements, animal mascots, color schemes. Within those Houses there are other divisions based on your year, your academic abilities, your course schedule, your Quidditch skills. These various (polyphonic?) boundaries crisscross and obscure the inherent unity of these students as a whole, namely that they are all witches and wizards. The singing of the Hogwarts school song momentarily sweeps aside these divisions and unites each and every student through—not just song—but a musical act that is radically egalitarian, welcoming, and accepting. Think about what it would be like to be participating in this event: every student hums, chants, bellows, croons, raps, squawks, or sings-with-good-diaphragm-support-and-excellent-vowel-shapes, with again, any melody, in any key, and at any tempo! It's a musical experience that offers each and every student a chance to participate exactly as they are. And while there are no musical barriers to participation, it's almost as if there are no social barriers as well.

Second, Dumbledore's participation. (Spoiler Alert!) Dumbledore can't get enough of this experience. He sets it in motion, basks in the chaos of the event, vigorously applauds its conclusion, and feels so brimful that tears well up in his eyes as he places music above all learnéd magic. What do those tears mean? Is he actually moved by the musicality of the moment? Is he being sarcastic and pointing out the inherent senselessness of reality? I think neither. I think that his participation in this odd experience has meaning for him because of his troubled relationship to power; later in the books we find that tragic events in Dumbledore's past caused him to distrust himself with positions of authority and with intimate relationships. Hence his reticence to confront Grindelwald. His refusal to take up the Minister of Magic post. His seven-book-long secret-keeping from Harry. I would imagine all these withdrawals, and the remembered, familial trauma of which they are a constant reminder, would have been a source of deep pain for Dumbledore. When he spreads his arms in welcome to the room full of students, perhaps he simultaneously fears to get too close and risk hurting those he loves. But, when he participates in the school song, he has a moment of respite. As long as that chaotic riot of aleatoric polyphony rages, Dumbledore is embracing and embraced in an intimate family. For Dumbledore this unity is a magic beyond all that can be taught at Hogwarts because it is a magic that reunites him with the closeness that he has both longed for and feared for a lifetime.

 

4. Personal

Owens Valley, We Love You.png

My mother actually composed my school song. For a good portion of our lives, my siblings and I attended Owens Valley Unified School District in Independence, California, a small K-12 school in a small desert town. And when I say small, I mean small. There were ten people in my graduating class. And it was an abnormally large class! I remember by mother, a singer and flutist, sketching out some words and melody on our electric keyboard in the back room. But it didn't just remain a sketch. Pretty soon we were all learning it in classes. And before you knew it we were singing it as a student body at assembly meetings and pep rallies in the gym! I've written it out below from what I can remember.

In many ways growing up in Independence was a lesson in scarcity. But it was also a place where, because of its small size, each person's individual contribution had great significance. My mother decided to write a school song and so we had one! We can easily lose that feeling of agency and importance in the larger picture of the world. I doubt that the song ist still sung at O.V. today. But I'd be interested to know if students from around my year still vaguely remember the birth and brief iteration of our very own school song, and whether they found any camaraderie in shouting "Orange and Black!" at the top of their lungs.

 

5. Action

Life seems pretty chaotic to me right now. I'm a dissertating graduate student, husband, father of a toddler and a newborn, with one car, living in an expensive city. It's aleatoric polyphony of calendaring and commuting and writing and cleaning and choosing and questioning and failing and rising and trying again. Often it feels heavy. But this passage of Dumbledore's has me thinking that chaos is a particularly rich moment to notice the magic of participation. I don't have to do these things. I choose to. I get to. And it's worth it. "A magic beyond all we do here." Where can you look for magic in the chaos of your life? Where can you sing connection and participation into your community?

I also find it significant that the sound-world that invites community and belonging through participation is decidedly avant-garde. Perhaps I can think of the chaos of life as the deployment of the avant-garde, the advance guard pushing forward into something new. Do we have our wits about us as we march forward into both the knowns and unknowns? Who do we bring with us on this mission? When and how do you rest? 


NEXT: Ghost music...

 

I.L.L.-mortal Beloved

I know most people think that musicologists lead a charmed life, but hopefully this epistolary post will show the world some of the trials and tribulations that effect musicologists everywhere. 

28 May 2017, 11:28pm

I'm freaking out! Through no fault of my own, UCSB has put my library account on hold and blocked me from ordering I.L.L.s (Interlibrary Loans)—Just like that, I'm cut off! What about all my books? And the sheet music? No more photocopies from Munich or London?!

I have so many intense emotions right now, emotions that I believe are best expressed through the riveting lyrics and choreographic wizardry of "Makes Me I.L.L." by *NSYNC. Thanks to Jess Roy for giving voice to my pain (and for knowing all the lyrics by heart). "You can say I'm crazy if you want to / That's true, I'm crazy 'bout you / You could say that I'm breakin' down inside / 'Cause I can't see that my lending account is blocked for something I'm pretty sure is all your fault!"

#heartbreak #librarydrama #gradschool #snafu #bookwithdrawal #godhelpmeacceptthethingsicannotcontrol #labcoats

29 May 2017, 4:12am

Thanks to everyone for their support through this trying time. Your sincere concern is what keeps me going. I still haven't heard from I.L.L. Maybe because they're ignoring my constant texts and phone calls. Maybe because it's the middle of the night. Maybe because it's a holiday... who knows!?!?

Alissa "Aune" Aune alerted me to this song by Run-D.M.C. "You Be I.L.L.in'" which captures my state of mind as I grapple with the feelings that come as a result of the library having "left [me] standin' in [my] I.L.L.in' stance."

#wheresmyclosure #hatersgonnahate #buggin #dignifiedweeping #musicologistshavefeelings

29 May 2017, 1:32pm

Well, the folks at I.L.L. have finally contacted me... and things just keep getting worse! They say I didn't return the book before the due date and I say that I did! Can you believe it?!? But you know what? I'm going to decide to put a bold face on it. No more weeping over cereal in the kitchen in the middle of the night for me! I'm going to brave this new chapter in my life with all the heroism I can muster! That's why this Gaelic folksong feels so right: "'I.L.L.ean bithibh sunndach" enjoins Scottish immigrants to be happy as they sail across the ocean... leaving their beloved books, I mean, country behind... and to embrace their new adventure like...

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!

I can't do it!!!! Please I.L.L., check your stacks again! Don't send me to the metaphorical Canada of booklessness!

#acceptance #poiseinthefaceofadversity #gaidhlig #harsh #happymusicsadlyrics #afraidtocheckemail

31 May 2017, 9:31pm

Um... This is all quite embarrassing... It turns out I may in fact be responsible for this little I.L.L. snafu after all...

You see, I turned in a book by Sándor Balogh entitled Moldvai csángómagyar furulyás dallamok és énekek on May 26. The only problem is that that book wasn't due then. The one that was due was by Sándor Balogh entitled Moldvai hangszeres dallamok... Which I found on my shelf yesterday after the nice people at the library emailed me.

...

I blame the California public school system!! Yeah! If I had been given more quality instruction in Hungarian in my teens, this sort of thing wouldn't have happened! Come on Proposition 98! I thought you had my back!!

...

You know what? Enough finger pointing! This is silly. I accept the blame here. I also admit that I acted rather rashly the past couple of days. I said things to the UCSB library, terrible things. I only hope we can patch things up. We used to be so close. We used to have such great times. Remember all those books you lent me? And then how I returned them in a timely manner? Those were the days! I want to have that again! Here's a song to express my hope in a future with you: "I.L.L. Be There" by Jackson 5. "Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter / Togetherness, well it's all I'm after, / Just call my name, and I.L.L. be there."

#imsorry #givemeanotherchance #missinyou #songsaboututopianegalitarianism #outofexcuses #agoodhardlookinthemirror #hungarianflutemusic #beginningtohopeagain #agglutinativelanguagesarenojoke

I hope this story shines as a light to anyone who has gone through or is currently going through serious book withdrawal. Just take it one day at a time.

Buccaneer Academia

The reader of these pages should not look for detailed documentation of every word. In treating of the general problems of culture one is constantly obliged to undertake predatory incursions into provinces not sufficiently explored by the raider himself. To fill in all the gaps in my knowledge beforehand was out of the question for me. I had to write now, or not at all. And I wanted to write.

These are the concluding words of the Forward to the 1950 English translation of Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938). They jump out at me not only due to their style of writing but to their sentiment. Regardless of any purported translation deficiencies, this combination of colorful imagery, conversational style, and personal voice, all of which continue into the body of book, turn a complex sociological argument into (dare I say it?) playful literature. This is the sort of writing that makes Arthur Loesser's Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (1954) so delightful. His description of the state of Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia has an undeniable snarkiness to it.

The violence had ceased now, but generations of small, mean living were ahead. Germany was broken: irrevocably split down the middle religiously, and politically shattered into three hundred fragments. Some of these were sizable realms such as the Kingdom of Saxony or the Kingdom of Bavaria, but most were pintsized principalities—"duodecimo states" they were contemptuously called later. Some had curious names that came unscrewed in the middle, such as Schwarzburg-Sonderhausen, Oettingen-Wallerstein, or Schaumburg-Lippe. Each was headed by an absolute sovereign princelet, who owed a theoretical and ceremonial allegiance to a Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, but who in practice did pretty much as he pleased with his domain. Each strutted about, affectionately coddling his ornamental army, his hunting apparatus, and his little orchestra.
Pieter Brugel the Elder "Children's Games" (1560). Also known as "The Yard Duty's Nightmare".

Pieter Brugel the Elder "Children's Games" (1560). Also known as "The Yard Duty's Nightmare".

Going back to Huizinga's example, I also appreciate the way in which he embraces incompletion or openendedness, and highlights the tension between intellectual objectivity and the pragmatism of putting pen to paper. True, it is possible that such sentences may simply be attempts to cover up sloppy or lazy scholarship. Or it could be a simultaneous application of scholarly bravery and humility. Based on the importance of Huizinga's work for later scholars in this area, I would hazard a guess that we are here dealing with the later. The sociologist Norbert Elias also falls into this category for me, with such seminal works as The Civilizing Process (1939) painting in broad and intelligent strokes while avoiding extreme or totalizing statements or conclusions.

  • What writers and styles of writing do you admire? Why?
  • What writers and styles of writing do you dislike? Because it's too pedantic? Too familiar?
  • As I look forward to a life of academic study, I hope that I can find the proper balance between research and writing. How do you negotiate this tension? Goals? Assessments?
  • When do you consider yourself ready and what gets you to that state? Mentors? Peers? Liquid courage?

Sources:

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Hoboken: Wiley, 2000.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950.

Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women and Pianos. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.

Herder's Field of Flowers

“What I would call the third natural method is to leave every flower in place and to scrutinize it there just as it is, according to era and form, from the root to the crown. The most humble genius hates ranking and comparison, and would rather rank first in the village than second behind Caesar. Lichen, moss, fern and the richest spice plant: each flourishes in its own position in the divine order.” (emphasis mine)

—Johann Gottfried Herder (1797) 

Herder here is talking about poetry.

The above quote is taken from the essay Results of a Comparison of Different Peoples’ Poetry in Ancient and Modern Times (for the full text of this short work, click here). In his day poetry was judged against either ancient Greek/Roman or 18th-century French models. However Herder argues that, as cultural products, poetry is created by human beings existing in unique contexts, and therefore reflects those particularities: “Poetry is a Proteus among the peoples.” Therefore the art’s forms, genres, and types will differ from nation to nation, language to language, and history to history.

Claude Monet c.1873 "Poppy Field near Argenteuill" For some reason I feel impelled to yell "Watch out for bees!"

Claude Monet c.1873 "Poppy Field near Argenteuill" For some reason I feel impelled to yell "Watch out for bees!"

But how is one to make sense of this all this confusing, won't-stand-still, lost-in-translation difference?

Herder would argue (and modern cognitive scientists would agree with him) that our natural mode of evaluation tends to stack the deck in our favor, ensuring that our own interests come out on top. “Everybody assesses and ranks poets according to his favorite notions, according to the fashion in which he got to know them, according to the impression that one or another has made on him.” The trouble begins when mere personal preferences turn into totalizing value judgements that build institutional and cultural hierarchies that perpetuate “the classics” at the expense of “the little people”.

What can we do to avoid this poetic confirmation bias? Here are my thoughts on what Herder (with a little help from George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien) brings to the table.

1. Leave every flower in its place

Perhaps we should not be so fast to uproot our favorite flowers and build institutional, hierarchical canons around them. Perhaps we should not be so hasty to pull up what we consider weeds for the upkeep of those systems. Perhaps we should allow for some breathing room that focuses more on savoring and less on judgement. In The Princess and the Goblin George MacDonald explains that upon finding a primrose blossom Princess Irene “would clap her hands with gladness, and unlike some children I know, instead of pulling it, would touch it as tenderly as if it had been a new baby, and, having made its acquaintance, would leave it as happy as she found it... She would go down on her hands and knees beside one and say: ‘Good morning! Are you all smelling very sweet this morning? Good-bye!’ and then she would to to another... There were many flowers up and down, and she loved them all, but the primroses were her favourites.”

2. Scrutinize it just where it is

Analysis should always attempt to be emic, that is, from the point of view of the subject, rather than an etic approach that applies outside, objective standards. This requires much more effort on our parts; in some cases learning a new language, extensive background reading, or living in a foreign country are required before we can begin to understand our subject. (The metaphor of marriage or a different, close relationship would come in handy right here.) Some might say that Herder is here an “isolationist” who would have us view each flower in a vacuum. I would say that this emic effort, rather than tossing out interconnectivity, gives us the time and space to come as close as possible to understanding something before we draw any comparisons or conclusions.

3. Each flourishes in its own position in the divine order

What would it be like if a divine order, a Creator, had made all the world including us humans? What if this Creator looked upon his creation with grace and patience, declaring that “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (according to Herder’s context of European Christianity)? How might that leveling, egalitarian idea change the way we wield our power of human order upon our own sub-creations (to use a term of Tolkien’s from On Fairy Stories)? Perhaps we would feel less pressure to so blind-sightedly uphold our personal canons. Perhaps we would feel less of a need to keep the unknown at arm’s length. By all means we should study, do research, be critical, make judgements, argue passionately for what we believe in. But the concept of a divine order simply reminds us of our own mortal limitations, of our need for humility in the midst of zealousness, and of our ability to both use and misuse our powers.

Rackham,  Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  (1906)

Rackham, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906)

Lastly, Herder is not just talking about poetry.

He is talking about humanity (Humanität). For him poetry’s use of language makes manifest the very souls of a people. In the end Herder’s ideas translate into a worldview of patience, grace, and empathy. 

Sources:

MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin, 2011.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories" in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. 

Operation Trilingual: 22 Week Assessment

It has been 22 weeks since I first began my Operation Trilingual Language Learning System. As outlined in my previous post, I planned on dividing my time between different types of Input and Output to create a perpetuum mobile of linguistic beauty. Now that some time has passed I need to take stock of what has been accomplished and decide whether or not my efforts are pushing me in the direction I want to go.

I recorded my progress on the following chart:

I'm voracious! And color coordinated.

I'm voracious! And color coordinated.

The green column shows the date in weekly groups.
The red section charts German activity and the blue French.
For each day I wrote what type of Activity (Narrative Input, Culling Input, Output), what Material was used (text, audio, flashcard program, etc.), Duration of time spent on that activity, and any special Notes.

That's how it worked; here's how I assess the journey:

  • Accomplishments
    • Daily Incentive: I didn't like having to write N/A and 0hrs for a given day. Kept up my work in both languages daily.
      • Highest weekly total: 16hrs 22mins
      • Lowest weekly total: 1hr 33mins
    • Lots of Narrative Input: By far the easiest Activity, I have made my way through a healthy helping of audio books of C.S. Lewis' Prinz Kaspian (finished) and Der Reise auf der Morgenröte (in progress) in German, reading German translations of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, and reading French, literary fairy tales by the Comtesse d'Aulnoy. Yum!
    • Academic Culling Input: in addition to passing my French language test for UCSB, I had to put in some time to translate foreign documents and articles for my classes and papers. One source included reading a German keyboard treatise from the early 1700s written in a very difficult to read fraktur script.
    • Exciting Output: I got the chance to have a lengthy conversation with a German speaker, exchange friendly emails with a Swiss pianist in German, and send some Facebook messages to a French friend.
    • Free Speak Output Focus: Sometimes it's hard to decide what to yak about. Aaron's Sentence Expansion Drill and Sentence Transformation Drill are excellent to warm up a language's rules and rhythms.

I see these accomplishments as a MAJOR VICTORY given the insanely busy life of the PhD graduate student. It probably wouldn't be an understatement to say that 80% of my Input was done on the bus to or from school and the other 20% in bed while trying to calm down and go to sleep after a busy day.

But the system still requires some revamping:

  • Short on Goals: My way of tracking progress works as a documentation of what I've done, but does not challenge me to meet self-imposed goals. The "do something every day" mandate has been great to keep up the momentum, but now I think it's best to give myself some specific goals I can aim for:
    • Not enough Output: Going forward, I'm going to try to have Output, probably in the form of writing, at least 3 times a week in each language. Perhaps I can make it a running story that I continue to enlarge, or I can rewrite sentences from my Culling Input with verb tense transformation. I'll have to experiment to figure out what works best, but definitely increasing the Output.
    • I need to go to the German restaurant (Brummis) and the French restaurant (Pacific Crêpes) in a few months to keep up the waiter-chatting inspiration.
  • Interesting vs. Useful Materials
    • I've made sure to read or listen to Materials that I enjoy. Thus the great wealth of fairy tales. This has been excellent for my enjoyment, but a little light on the vocabulary that is most helpful in conversation or reading academic documents. Perhaps a little sprinkling of those types would be beneficial. The former may mean more shadowing to podcasts and the latter more Wikipedia articles on composers or musical terminology.
    • (I just got an audio book of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers for Christmas!)

With the new year starting today, I think I'm in a pretty good place as far as my desire to be trilingual. I had wanted to start adding Russian, but I need to wait on that for a while as I take the time to set and meet these goals, especially the Output. Close the loop!

My best to everyone in the coming year on all your linguistic adventures. Keep the fire going!

Crying Wolf

Even while school activities have continued to mount (classes starting at Westmont, finals nearing for UCSB summer session) I've continued to ride the sweet, sweet wave of fairy tale criticism that has been become nothing short of a hungry passion. This has been expressed particularly through interaction with the research-collaboration-project blog Subverting Laughter, a truly wonderful chapter-by-chapter exploration of MacDonald's Light Princess from a variety of angles and approaches. I've also been reading Jack Zipes' Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion which is challenging and thought-provoking at every page. I originally picked this one up for it's chapter on George MacDonald, but, now that I'm going through it from the start, it's amazing to consider the broader, cultural ramifications of fairy tales in terms of how they "civilize" people, or teach them to acceptably integrate themselves into society.

Doré's illustration for Perrault's  Le petit chaperon rouge . 

Doré's illustration for Perrault's Le petit chaperon rouge

One of the themes that has jumped out at my through these activities is the symbolism of the wolf, its uses as a villain, as moral watch-dog, as devil, as splanchnon, and as a symbol for ravenous, devouring hunger. Here are some thought-provokers from this past week:

 

Zipes, Chapter 2: Setting Standards for Civilization through Fairy Tales: Charles Perrault and his Associates:

  • (Talking about "Red Riding Hood" in its earliest, oral, folk tale manifestation, before Perrault used it for his own cultural purposes.) The brave little peasant girl, who can fend for herself and shows qualities of courage and cleverness... proves that she is mature and strong enough to replace her grandmother. This specific tradition is connected to the general archaic belief about witches and wolves as crucial for self-understanding. Hans Peter Duerr has demonstrated that "in the archaic mentality, the fence, the hedge, which separated the realm of wilderness from that of civilization did not represent limits which were insurpassable. On the contrary, this fence was even torn down at certain times. People who wanted to live within the fence with awareness had to leave this enclosure at least once in their lifetime. They had to have roamed the woods as wolves or 'wild persons'. That is, to put it in more modern terms: they had to have experienced the wildness in themselves, their animal nature. For their 'cultural nature' was only one side of their being, bound by fate to the animallike fylgja, which became visible to those people who went beyond the fence and abandoned themselves to their 'second face'." In facing the werewolf and temporarily abandoning herself to him, the little girl sees the animal side of her self. She crosses the border between civilization and wilderness, goes beyond the dividing line to face death in order to live. Her return home is a more forward as a whole person. She is a wo/man, self-aware, ready to integrate herself in society with awareness.

MacDonald, Photogen and Nyctaris:
 

  • Watho: There was once a witch who desired to know everything. But the wiser a witch is, the harder she knocks her head against the wall when she comes to it. Her name was Watho, and she had a wolf in her mind. She cared for nothing in itself -- only for knowing it. She was not naturally cruel, but the wolf had made her cruel. She was tall and graceful, with a white skin, red hair, and black eyes, which had a red fire in them. She was straight and strong, but now and then would fall bent together, shudder, and sit for a moment with her head turned over her shoulder, as if the wolf had got out of her mind onto her back.

Padel, In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self:
 

  • In darkness we see what we cannot see in light. Darkness is the unknown... Darkness is where we are most likely to encounter gods. And where we meet their prophets... Fundamental to Greek ideas of prophecy, and of the mind, is the idea that knowledge can be found in, and from, darkness... Like the Sirens' song, passion is destructive but illuminating.


And just because it sprang to mind, Mumford and Sons, Whispers in the Dark:

  • You hold your truth so purely,
  • Swerve not through the minds of men
  • This lie is dead
  •  
  • This cup of yours tastes holy
  • But a brush with the devil can clear your mind
  • And strengthen your spine
  •  
  • Fingers tap into what you were once
  • And I'm worried that I blew my only chance
Van Gogh's The Starry Night  (1889) —all a swirl.

Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889)—all a swirl.

 

The way of talking about the wolf in these contexts reminds me of Ruth Padel's investigation of the splanchnon: as a place of blackness; the embodiment of emotions, hunger, personality; the crossroads between beast and god... I feel like we don't have characters like this anymore... Maybe Gollum, or Severus Snape... There is a contradictory loss of innocence and gain of awareness and strength... And the witch Watho consumed and lost to the wolf within herself... the awakening of hunger and power, but the need to overcome it... Jack Zipes continues to show how fairy tales, from Perrault to Disney, have continued to try to downplay the presence of the wolf, the need to contend with it, favoring instead a wholesale suppression of all that could potentially ruin us and threaten society's stability... Our culture continually downplays psychological therapy, one of the few remaining arenas where we are given room to contend with our inner wolves... Paul Angone in 101 Secrets for Your Twenties points out that those who don't deal with their wolves and grow out of them, tend to grow into them... With Watho-like results?...

And how is music wolf-like? St. Augustine explores music's discomfiting and otherworldly beauty, "a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy..." Does/can/should music also be poured forth in the emotion of the wolf? Can music provide a relatively safe place to explore these realms? And what music?

What do you think?

Apples Falling From the Baum

Amidst TAing an “Enjoyment of Music” summer session at UCSB and preparing to teach “Survey of Western Music” at Westmont beginning next week, I’ve been getting in a little last-minute reading. This summer has been an enthusiastic adventure through a variety of books concerning fairy tales: from Propp’s morphological theorizing and Todorov’s definition of the “fantastic” to bios of George MacDonald to fascinating contes by seventeenth-century, female, French writers like d'Aulnoy and l’Héritier, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s bizarre Der goldene Topf. I recently finished a book entitled Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, a collection of essays by prominent fairytale scholars, which gives a wide swath of perspectives and analytical positions to consider and apply in my own thinking. I’m having fun!

With this exploratory thought-lust in mind, I’ve made some preliminary observations concerning one of our read-out-loud-while-my-amazing-wife-prepares-dinner books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Since I’m currently diving into a chapter entitled "Inverting and Subverting the World with Hope: The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde and L. Frank Baum" by Jack Zipes, which is sure to give me a lot to think about, I’d better get out my initial perspective out now before anything else happens.

Illustration by W.W. Denislow

Illustration by W.W. Denislow

What initially struck me was Baum's introduction, a short one-page disclaimer in which he advocates for fairy tale modernization (particularly doing away with old European motifs, characters, and gruesome scenes) and aims at creating stories of pure, juvenile entertainment (Dorothy's innocence is a constant theme throughout the book). This strikes me a a pretty gutsy and bravura move and it brings a lot of questions to mind:

1. Does Baum succeed in divorcing himself from European tradition? His narrative structure seems particularly Proppian; his characters, though packaged differently, function much like those from a stock fairy tale; and the amount of gruesomeness tends to rival that found in some Grimm stories, for instance Dorothy viewing a decomposing corpse upon entry to the Land of Oz, as well as frequent and well-nigh habitual decapitation and dismemberment by the Tin Woodman's axe. Even as I write this, however, I wonder if there is a symbolic gesture involved in the violence. What if the Wicked Witches of the East and West somehow stand in for European tradition itself, something that Dorothy's purity must somehow (effectively yet simultaneously innocently) eradicate, both by the fall of the house (building something new over old foundations?) and through the cleansing power of water...

2. What about the dialectic between childish entertainment and moralizing symbolism? Baum's self-conscious story advocates for the former, but his pugnacious introduction, seemingly directed at adult purchasers/readers complicates matters. It makes me critical of the fantastic elements in the story as I attempt to understand their potential purpose and position. It seems like the fantasy can act in at least three ways:
     A. As pure childish fancy: primary colors, glittering objects (so much you have to wear protective eye-wear), wondrous exoticisms, delicious fruits, soft sheets... in effect anything that gives a sense of delightfulness and potency as wonder-inducing symbols for youth. Seen in this light, it would seem that Baum's choices are nearly random. Does it matter that the Munchkins like blue and the Winkies like yellow? Why a Stork? Why Wolves and Bees? Why this appearance of symbolism, of potential? Why does unmasking the power structure (the Wizard as a humbug) accomplish so little in the paradigm of the story?
     B. As cultural critique: I read somewhere that Baum may have had a "yellow-brick road = money power structures" vendetta. Maybe also an American/democratic, anti-monarchical message? But in the end, despite the Wizard's banishment, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all become monarchs... I don't have any biographical knowledge that could enrich this idea as of yet, plus ideological application is so tricky.
     C. As a tongue-in-cheek, adult-directed message: the brainless Scarecrow a great thinker, the heartless Tin Woodman constantly crying and sighing, the frightened Lion facing death to protect his friends. Where is Propp's Lack? Where is the real problem that must be fixed? Also, the use of "magic" seems extremely complicated: sometimes mere smoke-and-mirrors; sometimes, genuinely borrowed from Europe (Dorothy's silver slippers and petit Poucet's seven-league boots); and sometimes so random as to appear ridiculous (the Good Witch of the North balancing her pointed hat on her nose and counting to three, as it turns into a writing tablet)... Does magic exist here or not? Is it powerful or not? Does it matter? Who makes things happen? Who has power?

3. Lastly, why has it become such a powerful American cultural symbol? The MGM movie, The Wiz musical, Wicked the book and the musical? Does it contain something potent after all it's deconstruction?

What do you think? What pops out at you when you experience this story? What do you like, dislike, not understand? Why did they change the color of her slippers in the movie!?!?

Operation: Trilingual

A few weeks ago I had my second language learning coaching session with The Everyday Language Learner's Aaron Myers, a birthday present generously given to me by my family. During our first session we talked about directed and motivated ways of breaking through with German, but now I am at the point where I must say "bon jour" to an old friend: français. This will be the fourth time that I've set out to learn French, a language with which I've had an on-again-off-again relationship since elementary school. Back then, I was intrigued by the luxuriant sounds of the language and inspired by my ancestry to francophone Canada. Today I continue to delight in the sounds and the heritage, with the addition of UCSB requiring it for Musicology, the possibility of my PhD work focusing on the 1800s, and close familial co-learning: my brother lives in Europe and speaks it, my sister will eventually move to Ottawa and should speak it, and my wife wants to speak it.

So my question for Aaron was how to resurrect French while maintaining German. It can be done. One must be organized, inspired, and willing to repeatedly assess whether or not they are working in the direction they want. With help from Aaron, my ESL trained sister, and LucidChart here's what I came up with to help me make this work (click on it to make it bigger):

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

It looks a bit like something you'd find in biology class on cell walls... and I'm ok with that.

Here's how it works:

     Input: Language comes at you, flies like a ninja into your ears or eyes! I see two different types of input.

          The first (A) I call Narrative/Music. This is when you immerse or inundate yourself in listening or reading, not really stopping to look up words or checking grammar, just getting with the flow of the story and noticing the cadence of the sounds. (It's what babies do for a good three years.) Because you're not stopping, you develop contextual skills (that intonation sounded like a question, these people must be angry with each other, etc.) to help piece together what you don't get the first time. I'm not at the stage where I can just listen to German radio or watch a French documentary. That would be drowning, not inundating. For me, that means using materials I know pretty well in my mother tongue, using my prior knowledge to fill in the blanks and enjoying the story which I can anticipate and enjoy from a different perspective. At this point, my German listening consists of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series in audiobook form (I'm just starting book 2, Prinz Kaspian von Narnia) and reading consists of short Wikipedia.de articles on composers. I have not figured out yet what I want to do in French, though the audiobook Harry Potter et l'école des sorciers and Perrault's Contes de la mère l'Oye are definite possibilities. I've written a bit about contextual reading in this post on parallel texts.

          The second type of Input (B) I call Word Culling. The Narnia books are a very good level for me; I'm getting about 80% of the words and can fill in the rest with prior knowledge. The 20% I'm not totally sure about becomes an extremely manageable stockpile of words that I can focus on: isolate them, look them up, put them on a flashcard system (I use Anki) and be sure to catch them when I review a chapter or reread an article. I love the bite-sized-ness of this system because it has a high level of exposure, high level of story/enjoyment, and a low level of flipping through a dictionary. But the best way to review these words I've found is...

     Output: You have to dish it out! This is the hard part for me, especially with the horrible dance that some languages produce: is that noun feminine? what sort of preposition is that? is the verb a verb of motion? what's the adjective ending? Here's what I'm working on: I take the words that I've culled from Input B (notice the arrow) and I use them as my wordlist to write or speak. If I just learned the word for "accompaniment" I write a short paragraph about what it's like being an accompanist who accompanies with an accompaniment... Perhaps I send it in to Lang-8 and get some feedback on how that's going. Or I have what I like to call Free Speaking in which I improvise sentences out loud, usually about what I'm doing or have done or will do: Numi, we are walking on the street; I ride my motorcycle to work and the clouds are cold and wet, etc. It feels pretty silly, but it is the only way I will improve in output. You've got to babystep before you can laufen. When you use these culled words this way they morph from flashcard words you didn't know to speech acts that are linked to specific places, situations, and contexts. I'll never forget that in German you pretty much always need to use an adjective when you say the word "wind" (cold, chilly, humid, scorching, etc); according to an editor at Lang-8, it's just funny without it. Then I use this knowledge to better understand my Input (notice the other arrow), catching it when I review sections that I've culled, and catching it faster when I encounter it during other narrative/musical moments.

So that's my method. I'm pretty happy about the diagram and how it reinforces itself. It's like a perpetual motion machine of glorious language learning awesomeness! Let me know if this idea is helpful, what materials you see yourself using in Input, or ways it could be better!

Tchüß!

Salut!

Danke, Lang-8

Today I felt enough self-rejuvenation to rekindle the language learning flame that was ignited back in March when I talked to Aaron Meyers from The Everyday Language Learner. One of my assignments was to cultivate a habit of writing in German — and for that, Lang-8 is a pretty nice resource. As I manned the small circulation music library at the Music Academy of the West (quite a soporific affair) I wrote out and submitted a modest essay outlining my duties. In about five hours I got back a corrected version complete with encouragement! Here 'tis auf Deutsch and in English for your Wednesday evening enjoyment:

That's me in the blue hat and red stockings: standard Music Academy of the West garb.

That's me in the blue hat and red stockings: standard Music Academy of the West garb.

Ein Tag in der Musikbibliothek

Heute arbeite ich in der Musikbibliothek in der Westmusikakademie in Santa Barbara, Kalifornien. Im Sommer veranstalten sie musikalischen Unterricht für mehrere Studenten, die aus der Ferne kommen. Auch wenn es in der Bibliothek ruhig ist, habe ich so viel zu tun! Wenn ich ankomme, setzte ich mich auf einen Stuhl neben einer Auskunft mit Computer, Telefon und Papierkorb. Danach mache ich meine Hausaufgaben. Ich lese zum Beispiel Propps "Morphologie des Märchen" oder schreibe mein musikalischer Artikel. Wenn das Telefon klingelt, dann muss ich den Anruf entgegennehmen und "Hallo, Bibliothek" sagen. Falls ein Student oder Lehrer herein kommt, erklingt ein leiser Alarm und dann muss ich Fragen beantworten, Bücher oder Notenblätter finden oder die Gegenstände mit dem Computer ausbuchen. Aber jetzt weiß ich nur, dass ich nicht schlafen darf!

A Day in the Music Library

Today I am working in the music library in the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. In the summer they offer musical instruction for many students who come from all over. Even though the library is peaceful I have so much to do! [Not sure how to express sarcasm in German yet.] When I arrive I sit myself in a chair behind a service desk with computer, telephone, and waste paper basket. Then I do my homework. I read, for example, Propp's "Morphology of the Fairy Tale" or write my music article. When the telephone rings [it did... once] then I take the call and say "Hello, library." If a student or teacher comes in, a little bell rings and then I answer questions, find books or sheet music, or check out materials with the computer. But now I just know that I can't fall asleep!

Two Observations on Plato, Aristotle, and Harry Potter

I'm taking a Dramatic Theory seminar through the Theater Department this quarter. In addition to the outrageously comfortable conference room chairs and meeting a new group of colleagues, Dr. David King has us wandering through an etymology-strewn, philosophy-riddled history/mind/soul-scape including the Caves of Lascaux, Nietzsche, Horace, Ruth Padel, Benjamin, and so many others. We have one session a week, almost three hours long, after which my sluggish mind, waterlogged with knowledge and hopefully a little wisdom, wants nothing more than to go home and read Harry Potter out loud (lautlesen) as my wife makes dinner. Yet, you can't really halt rumination, and here are two small connections that cropped up:

Aristotle and Plato from Raphael's  School of Athens  probably deep in conversation about why Harry decided to wear the horcrux around his neck rather than put it in the mokeskin pouch  around his neck . 

Aristotle and Plato from Raphael's School of Athens probably deep in conversation about why Harry decided to wear the horcrux around his neck rather than put it in the mokeskin pouch around his neck

  1. The word mimesis is outrageously difficult to define. It can imply imitation, or representation, but also ideas like copytranslationinventionillusion, or lie. It's often used in dramatic theory to talk about the theater as a crossroads of reality and fantasy, not only in terms of whether or not the plot is historically accurate or realistically feasible, but whether or not one thinks of the actor as actor or as character, the prop or the object. At one point Plato, who has an extremely complicated view of theater, uses mimetic in conjunction with the word diagetic to talk about ways of delivering a text. A diagetic delivery involves simple reading of the text, word for word, in your own natural voice; to read in a mimetic manner means giving different characters different voices. Essentially the former is Madeline L'Engle in her audiobook for A Wrinkle in Time (quite monotone), and the latter is Jim Dale reading the Rowling's Harry Potter series or Phillip Schulmann reciting C.S. Lewis' Narnia books (inflected, character-full voices galore). While one is not necessarily better than the other, I am definitely of the mimetic cast, a trait I inherited from my father's inspired readings of Verne, Lewis, and Twain when I was a child. In my mind, it's simply a lot more fun! However, Plato adds an aspect to mimesis that has some of that ancient world magic to it: the mimetic reader, as they invoke the voice of the character they are portraying, will actually, in a way, become that character and even feel what that character feels. A powerful idea! What do you give of yourself when you enter into a part? What might you receive? I caught myself thinking of this as I spoke Voldemort's "high, cold voice" and in a way count myself thankful that I got through it alright.
  2. A smaller observation stems from the intensely etymological exegesis of Dr. King. Two words: splanchnon and peripateia. The first, dealt with extensively in a reading we did by Padel, is regularly translated as stomach or guts. For the ancient Greeks this is the place of emotions, of black fear, of the touching point between mortality and the divine. (Next time you get stressed and feel your stomach clench, that's your splanchnon ringing with the sound of eternity!) The second word, peripateia, is dealt with by Aristotle when he's laying out the proper disposition of a theatrical plot. It involves the moment of a plot's change of direction or reversal or twist, and constitutes an extremely important, catharsis-rich moment in a performance. After reading the Poetics and basking in the import of these two ideas, my eye was quick to pick up on a passing, but perhaps pivotal moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: literally, Harry's "stomach turned over!" There it is! His splanchnon peripateia-ed! Blammo! ... (This is when Jessica shrugs her shoulders and allows me a moment of intellectual nerding-out, before we continue the thrilling saga and and she resumes crafting our dinner (which will soon end up right in my splanchnon!!!!))

Here's to the beginning of Week 6. Cheers!

Reading Parallel Texts

Lately I've found a wealth of encouragement from this Every Day Language Learner post, Language Learning Tip: Using Parallel Texts. I have several books of this type, mostly German (Grimm Märchen, poetry anthologies and collections by Goethe and Rilke), but also a Gàidhlig collection of folk tales and Robert Henryson's The Testament of Cresseid in Middle Scots. Moreover the internet is chalk full of ways to synthesize the concept. In the past, when faced with an intimidating swath of foreign language, I've taken the machete-through-the-jungle approach, with minimal glances at my mother-tongue translation, convinced that the effort of immersion should be assuaged by English as little as possible.

Anne Anderson's princess from  The Golden Bird  doesn't judge a book by its cover.

Anne Anderson's princess from The Golden Bird doesn't judge a book by its cover.

According to Aaron's post, this is not the best way to go about it. He suggests first reading a portion of the text (as much as a single sentence to a whole chapter) in your native language, gaining an understanding of its meaning, and only then taking on a chunk of the target language. This way you spend little if no time looking up individual vocabulary words and have much more contextual or narrative meaning to assign. It also helps clear up idiomatic difficulties and generally keeps you going further longer. This concept has already been at work when I've read sections of the Bible, Harry Potter, or any of the Narnia stories because of my background knowledge.

Since reading this article, in addition to feeling good about being placed in the "Intermediate" category, I've barreled through no less than four Grimm stories with an extremely high comprehension and retention. I've discovered that this method is much more difficult with poetry given the high level of abstraction and grammatical anomalies (although my dreams seem to be haunted by Klopstock's Das Rosenband). My greatest joy has now been to read Friedrich Motte Fouqué's Undine in English, a fairy tale greatly admired by George MacDonald. I had bought the little yellow copy of the story in German while in Leipzig last year, but have always felt as if I should be much further along in vocabulary before I stumbled through it. Now, having read it once over in my mother tongue, to great satisfaction and joy, I am well equipped to take a stab at it in the original. I hope to use this same idea to get through my languishing copies of stories by Kafka, Ende's Neverending Story, and Goethe's Young Werther.

Happy reading!

The Writing of a Master's Thesis: A Series in Nine Photos

Someone discovered Instagram filters! And also wrote his Master's Thesis! Eternal thanks to my wife for reminding me to eat.

The thesis begins in relative cleanliness, nourishing itself on a diet of tea and succulent fruits.

The thesis begins in relative cleanliness, nourishing itself on a diet of tea and succulent fruits.

The chaos of disorder is held at bay by the addition of decorative flowers.

The chaos of disorder is held at bay by the addition of decorative flowers.

Though at first sight suspect, honey-avocado sandwiches give the thesis the energy it needs.

Though at first sight suspect, honey-avocado sandwiches give the thesis the energy it needs.

A battery of orchids, cinnamon-swirl bread, and inspirational quotation pictures buoy the thesis in perseverance. 

A battery of orchids, cinnamon-swirl bread, and inspirational quotation pictures buoy the thesis in perseverance. 

Cue the Joe-Joe's! Maybe the bag of rock-hard dry apricots balance out the jolt of sugary goodness.

Cue the Joe-Joe's! Maybe the bag of rock-hard dry apricots balance out the jolt of sugary goodness.

Peanut butter/banana smoothie... fresh in the blender!

Peanut butter/banana smoothie... fresh in the blender!

When the sun comes out, the thesis would be completely daft not to take advantage of it. It feels perfectly at home with other animals, such as the noble, grass-devouring labrador, with whom the thesis has a symbiotic, don't-bother-me-now relationship. 

When the sun comes out, the thesis would be completely daft not to take advantage of it. It feels perfectly at home with other animals, such as the noble, grass-devouring labrador, with whom the thesis has a symbiotic, don't-bother-me-now relationship. 

At this stage in the life of the thesis, trail mix can either be eaten by the handful, or all the dried cherries can be picked out individually. Just be careful of drinking water with all that dried fruit.

At this stage in the life of the thesis, trail mix can either be eaten by the handful, or all the dried cherries can be picked out individually. Just be careful of drinking water with all that dried fruit.

The printed thesis seems harmless enough. All the books, blenders, cups, plates, and orchids have been packed. Even the table is being sold. Look for your own copy of the thesis wherever unpublished academic resources are sold/loaned/provided online.

The printed thesis seems harmless enough. All the books, blenders, cups, plates, and orchids have been packed. Even the table is being sold. Look for your own copy of the thesis wherever unpublished academic resources are sold/loaned/provided online.

Dues Paying Member of the ISFA

Packing all your possessions into brown boxes eventually uncovers all manner of interesting things. There’s the Tupperware full of miniature Star Wars figures. A one hundred page book I wrote in sixth grade called “The Three Treasures”. A flash drive of Jessica’s Dad’s ebooks. Prayer beads. A broken accordion. Postcards from London. It’s challenging to encounter these reminders and symbols of life. You have to come to grips with your own materialism.

On the brighter side I found my old acceptance letter into the National String Figure Association. Yes. No joke. Just imagine 15 year-old MR with a length of knotty yarn eagerly flipping through a highly pedantic anthropological journal. “String figure enthusiasts are everywhere, but notoriously difficult to identify — I’m glad you found us!” Yes, Dr. Mark Sherman sure was glad of my support in September of 1999. In addition to ISFA I also remember memorizing whole sections of a C.F. Jayne’s “String Figures; A Study of Cat’s-Cradle in many Lands” (1906) in a corner of the Inyo County Library as well as printing off pages of the Arctic String Figure Project. Let’s just say I was serious.

A photo from Jayne's book. Essentially a picture of me.

A photo from Jayne's book. Essentially a picture of me.

The funny thing is that the moment I found these old journals and pamphlets I scrounged around for a length of twine and plopped myself on the couch to make a Kiwi and a Boat and a Gourd (and failing miserably at the Fox and Whale). String figures are truly fascinating. I always consider the ingenuity of people who did not have television. Instead they composed visual aids to epic stories, made magic tricks, constructed devices for predicting the gender of a baby, engaged in creativity competitions, or just passed the time. I love to consider the infinite possibilities that lay latent in a ridiculously simple length of string. The dancing of the fingers call forth all manner of beautiful things from such humble beginnings. I also love that moment when a tangled knot wrapped around your fingers suddenly stretches out into a beautiful image, mathematically proportioned, fragile and sustained by the even tension of your fingers, shining for a moment before slinking back into a common loop of twine. It’s like music, that structure from chaos and manifold variations.

Another picture from the Jayne book. This is one of my favorite figures, but it really only works if you have a 10-foot loop. 

Another picture from the Jayne book. This is one of my favorite figures, but it really only works if you have a 10-foot loop. 

I think I’ll hold on to some of these things a little longer. Who knows when I’ll find another “string figure enthusiast.”

PS!Just found two string figures collected from the Salish Native Americans who lived in the Spokane area. Extremely cool. Check it! One is called “Dressing a Skin” and the other “Pitching a Tent” which is identical to “A Fish-Spear” (and was called “Witch’s Broom” in my little Sister’s book as a toddler). 

Conserted Consort: "And all the while sweete Musicke did apply Her curious skill, the warbling notes to play."

Although set in the faerie world of celestial Muses, medieval pageantry, and piping rustics, the historical context of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” plays a slightly different tune. Among the many industrious and illustrious composers of the 16th century I find the English composer William Byrd to have particular import to the audience and fairy world of Spenser’s epic.

Detail of Queen Elizabeth I's "Armada" Portrait (unknown artist, 1588).

Detail of Queen Elizabeth I's "Armada" Portrait (unknown artist, 1588).

The political/religious climes of England during the late 1500s were tense to say the least. Protestant England was beset on all sides by Catholic neighbors (Ireland, sometimes France, Spain, Scotland) in a highly hostile and competitive world (think the looting of the New World and Burt Lancaster as the Crimson Pirate). In Book V Spenser wrestles allegorically with the trial and execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots by Protestant Queen Elizabeth in 1587, an event that shook the current understanding of the divine justice of absolute monarchy.

Add to this mix William Byrd (1543-1623): virginalist, sheet music baron, CoE anthem composer, musician of the Royal Chapel, and Catholic. It is an outstanding testament to the favor that he somehow achieved with Queen Elizabeth that he retained his faith in the face of so much hostility. The same mind that wrote beautiful motets for the Church of England also wrote exquisite Latin Masses for three, four or five voices to be sung in secret. I’m listening to the Mass for four voices now. The texture is so private and supplicating and earnest. I love the declamations of the Gloria. Gorgeous. And the historical context lends it such honesty– far removed from the posturing of the courtiers.

I have known and enjoyed Billy Byrd primarily through various compilations of his keyboard pieces for virginal. In collections such as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and My Ladye Nevells Booke we observe the composer in more a posturing role. If not outright composing pieces dedicated to powerful patrons, he is at least contributing to the culture of the refined lord and lady, masters of the arts and yet disdainful of excess. (That being said it must have been a hard blow for the gallant duke or duchess who picked up the Fitzwilliam and found John Bull’s 30 Variations on Walsingham yawning like Charybdis before them!) I particularly enjoy such song variations of Byrd as Jhon come kisse me now, 16 variations on a lovely, mushy love song with modal, hexachord spices. The Bells extracts 9 variations out of a two note bass figure with something of a minimalistic, meditative rhythm. Ut, re mi, fa, sol, la and Ut, mi, re show Byrd at a very pedantic and ambitious mode, exploring distant tonalities with all manner of strange accidentals.

Vermeer's  Young Woman Seated at a Virginal  (1670-72). And after that scales and arpeggios on the viol. Then lunch.

Vermeer's Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (1670-72). And after that scales and arpeggios on the viol. Then lunch.

So check out Byrdman when you can. The Petrucci Music Project has a lot of his virginal pieces as well as his Mass for five voices in sheet music form. (Love that Petrucci and his projects!) The virginal as an instrument is surely a strange and acquired taste. (I believe Stravinsky compared it to the sound of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.) I love it and would encourage you to listen to a good recording from a skilled musician with life in their fingers and hearts. Kathryn Cok plays an extremely amazing Walsingham on her Lyrichord Early Music album entitled “Dr. Bull’s Jewel”.

Lastly an excerpt from a contemporary of Spencer and Byrd, the dashing and tragic Sir Phillip Sidney: “Astrophil and Stella”, Sixth Song.

Music doth witness call
The ear his truth to try;
Beauty brings to the hall
The judgment of the eye;
Both in their objects such
As no exceptions touch.

The common sense, which might
Be arbiter of this,
To be forsooth upright,
To both sides partial is;
He lays on this chief praise,
Chief praise on that he lays.

The reason, princess high,
Whose throne is in the mind,
Which music can in sky
And hidden beauties find,
Say whether thou wilt crown
With limitless renown?