Monday, April 25, 2005

Blame Tim.

In a comment to my previous post, Jarrett wrote: "Good luck with the music catalogue work! I am very curious to see where your research takes you."

So everyone can blame him for this post, which is about just that.

If you have never been curious about the intricacies or intimacies of academic research, then you are in trouble, and might rather not read further.

But if you do quit now, you'll miss out on the exciting account of my recent encounters with a most sophisticated device of torture invented by a well meaning Dane with more organizational aplomb than he should have.

Now are you curious?

Then let me tell you about Peter Ryom's catalogue of the works of Antonio Vivaldi. If you are a classical music listener, then you may be familiar with the RV numbers that often follow descriptions of Vivaldi's pieces in album liner notes (like the BWV numbers for Bach works or the K numbers for Mozart). Vivaldi composed over 770 pieces of instrumental music, and Ryom attempted to organize them in a systematic manner, so that any smart person could identify a particular piece of music and then know what its manuscript sources are, whether it was published in Vivaldi's lifetime, whether it exists in multiple copies, etc. He helpfully provided thematic openings for every movement of each piece, so that if you're looking at a score you can identify the piece easily.

That all sounds good, right?


To use Dr. Ryom's catalogue you first determine whether the piece in question was written for one instrument and a basso continuo, two instruments and continuo, three instruments and continue etc. Or whether for one instrument, a string orchestra, and continuo; two instruments a string orchestra and contiuo and so forth.

Then you determine what the solo instrument is, or whether, in the case of pieces for more than one solo instrument, the two instruments are the same.

Then you determine the key in which the piece was written. In cases where the 3 movements are not all in the same key, see Ryom's note in his introduction.

Is your head hurting yet?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you that I met Dr. Ryom's catalogue and I was afraid. A couple of afternoons of work with it drove me toward my usual forms of stress relief, which were really no help.

But I have mastered that catalogue, yes I have. Faced with a list of about 25 Vivaldi pieces that I needed to identify, I covered every last one.

The more skeptical among you are now saying, well, that doesn't seem so bad. After all, the Ryom catalogue is very well ordered. Identifying music in it should be easy.

Here is the trick: my main man Ezra Pound copied Vivaldi scores from microphotographs of original manuscripts. And regardless of the composition of the piece, he set it up for solo violin and keyboard accompaniment.

(That kind of arrangement really was not uncommon during the 1930s, when people wanted to produce music at little cost.)

So whether the piece is for solo violin, orchestra and continuo or whether it is for 2 violins, 2 oboes, 2 salmoe, 2 bassoons, orchestra and continuo, the scores all look the same.

That left me with the key signature and themes to work with: Yes, that's right: a score with no sharps or flats would leave me to search through every piece written in C major or A minor.

But damn it, I did it.

And the good news is that it looks like it will be worth it. These scores say so much about Mr. P's involvement in the music of Vivaldi.

(For more detail than that, you'll need to read the book. When it comes out in about 8-9 years, if I am lucky.)

You might not know that prior to the 1930s, Vivaldi was a little known composer. Very little of his music was known, and he was routinely dismissed as a fine performer and mediocre composer. He ranked about 3 paragraphs in the Grove's Dictionary of Music.

But all that changed during the 1930s, thanks in part to the work of Pound and friends, and that is what I have been trying to piece together for the last 4 weeks.

So the next time someone claims that Gabler's edition of Ulysses is one of the most efficient torture devices known to man, you can tell them they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Why I had to tell Arianna no.

I know that both of my readers have been wondering whether I am going to abandon this humble blog in favor of Ariana Huffington's new venture. The answer is no.

Disapointed? Well, so was Ms. Huffington. But I explained to her, look, I have barely been able to keep up with this blog over the last month, what with all the xeroxing and manuscript transcription I've been up to. She tried to argue that her venture is more important than my research, but I stared at her in disbelief and she just shook her head. Besides, the post of overseeing the "Recent Archival Finds" section was already taken, dammit. But Ms. Huffington was relieved when I suggested that David Mamet might be willing to fill in for me.

So fear not: in less than a week I will be up to more of my usual sporadic mischief. In the meantime, wish me good luck with the music catalogue work and a safe trip home.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Never let me go.

I should start about by saying that I have always loved it that in The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro uses an unreliable butler to present a portrait of Englishness. By "unreliable butler" I do not really mean that Mr. Stevens is a bad butler, or that his unreliability impacts his performance as a butler. Quite the contrary: as a butler, he has been impeccable, always privileging his work, doing everything a person could--and really more than post persons could--to perform as a surperb butler. His unreliability has more to do with his general humanity: it is his emotions, his ability to make choices that most of us would judge as "good," and his narrative that make him unreliable.

Most important, though, is his narrative. And because Kazuo Ishiguro is a brilliantly subtle writer, most readers don't notice how unreliable he is until a good ways into the story--i.e., too late to start out with their guard up.

But we should be very guarded in reading his story, when he explains to us what it means to be a good butler, why his proudest performance as a butler came on the night that his own father was dying, when he aimed to fulfill his duties impeccably, even though that meant paying little attention to his father's dying. And we should not trust him, either, when he says he pulled this off, because the tale tells us that those he was serving could tell something was wrong. Where the teller tells us he was a brilliant butler because he sacrificed his own feelings and needs to his work, the tale tells us that really he did neither well.

The story takes place within and between the great houses of England, so it is not surprising that it works as a story about England itself--its history, its sense of itself, the workings of its power structure. But what makes that story exciting is that the reader's focus is always on the people who are actually making things happen, the facilitators, the enablers, the actors, the staff. But not in an Upstairs Downstairs kind of way: the point here is not just to ooh and ahh and what is happening behind the curtain, but to see how life looks from the perspective of someone who cannot help but ooh and ahh at same, even though he is the object of his own admiration.

These kinds of vaguely outsider portrait are what Kazuo Ishiguro does so brilliantly, and the characters (and especially the narrators) in his novels seem always to have this status. (I am talking less about The Unconsoled than about his other books; sure, The Unconsoled did some interesting things with its representation of perception and relationships between a person's psyche and the environment, but it did not really work for me as a novel--or else it made me immensely anxious--so I am not talking about it, so much as An Artist of the Floating World, When We Were Orphans, and The Remains of the Day.)

The narrator of Never Let Me Go is no exception, although at first past Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth seem like the standard elite English public school children who might occupy a position widely accepted as central. But they differ from that standard in some important and surprising ways—-surprising enough to lead Sarah Kerr in yesterday's Times to call this Ishiguro's take on the science fiction genre. And as she points out, the situtation of this novel figures centrally enough that it is hard to talk about it without blowing the plot. If you want the plot blown for you, you can read her review here.

But the question I want to ask does not require that plot detail, if you accept that these elite students differ from the "normal" in some important ways. What I want to ask is, what does it mean to have these normal-seeming not-at-all-normal students stand in as a vision of Englishness? As is the case for the staff characters in The Remains of the Day, the normal characters in this novel require these less normal characters in order for their lives to run smoothly, normally. And the normal prefer not to think of the sacrifices made by the not normal, even as they are unwilling to ask them to stop. What is it about English society--and maybe not just English society--that requires these sacrificial figures to function?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Charming Hostess

If you were a fan of the Bulgarian ladies (or even that Georgian men's choir with the basso profundis) back in circa 1990, then you'll find yourself in familiar territory on the first couple of tracks of Charming Hostess's album Sarajevo Blues, a pretty recent release in the Tzadik label's Radical Jewish Culture series. There are three women in Charming Hostess, and their harmonies have that Byzantine quality that got me so charged up back then.

But if you think that the traditional-looking costumes on the cover, and the first couple of numbers put you in the "safe world music" realm (i.e., lyrics you don't understand and therefore don't have to think about), you're wrong.

After the first couple of tracks, you're back into and out of English, in songs that take up something of the day-in day-out living during wartime. (Charming Hostess provides translations for those songs not in English, so you have no excuse.) And even though the songs make direct reference to the civil wars and genocide in former Yugoslavia, their implications are more far-reaching than that. These are songs about how the local communist party might interfere in a love affair, about a familiar man blown away by a grenade, about a (presumably western) photographer taking a picture of a woman trying to dodge sniper fire. They are also about race and religion and identity, but without suggesting that a listener take a side. Things can be bad all around.

It's also about here that Charming Hostess mixes those traditional sounding harmonies with a myriad of other sounds, including a much rougher something that comes from punk. Amazing.

(And may I note how much fun it is to have bought this CD in an actual store?)

I can't wait to check out the Charming Hostess Big Band's release Punch, which their website describes this way: "more bodacious babes belt the blues in Bulgarian while a punk-klezmer band rocks out in accompaniment--BUT EVEN BETTER!"

How much better could it get?

Monday, April 11, 2005

Why I will never be paid to be a critic.

So now that Julius Caesar has officially opened, the reviews are piling up. Or I should say, more honestly--because honesty is the new theme here--I have read one or two bits about it in the Times. And the net result? Well, the hoity-toity of the New York theatre world appear to have turned up their collective nose at a play I thought was fascinating. In fact, Charles McGrath titles his review "The Play Shakespeare Wrote for Plebes," commenting, "Caesar isn't Shakespeare lite, exactly, but it can sometimes seem like Shakespeare on training wheels."

Nota bene: McGrath also opens his piece with reference to everyone's experience reading the play in high school. I can happily say that both my readers know I said it first! But then, this is not the first time I have been plagiarized by the Times.

But this is not my point. My point, and this is important if you ever read this blog, is that I tend to like things.

Take the latest Royal wedding. I am happy for them--honestly. And really, I am crazy for the hat Camilla wore to the church (her daughter's was a bit much). I feel no need to join in the snarking in which royals-watchers indulge.

But you should know this tendency of mine before I go on to say how much I absolutely loved Gurinder Chadha's Bride and Prejudice. Loved it. As in, I might go see it again tonight.

I used to think that an American high school was the only ideal setting for a revisiting of a Jane Austen novel--and really it was darn good--but now I see that, no, Bollywood is where it's at.

Of course, this is partly my love of that genre. What is not to love about a giant screen filled with people dancing in colorful costumes, moving their hips in ways that I can manage maybe once before I lose my footing? Or about the endless love stories, with arcane plot twists and casts of thousands?

Sure, sure I have read reviews that say this Mr. Darcy is made of cardboard. Fine. But cardboard can be nice to look at for 2 hours, right? And isn't so much of this genre about pretty things? And the music, of course.

I have been wondering for the last couple of days whether to blow a couple of the good details, and I have decided that I will. If you don't want them blown for you, skip this paragraph. Point is: Chadha's take on Bollywood taking on America is hilarious. Picture the couple in question having a romantic moment (during a musical number, of course) on a California beach. I doubt I need to tell you that it is sunset, and before you know it they are walking in front of several risers filled with a gospel choir, who are singing the back-up vocals for the song. But wait! Now it is a lifeguard and a surfer supplying the singing! Brilliant brilliant--and that does not even begin to touch the cross-dressed singer-dancers in the Amritsar you-are-about-to-be-married musical extravaganza.

What is more, given this genre's preoccupation with weddings, it really is the perfect venue for re-thinking Austen's novel.

My only complaint is that the film was too short. Knowing I was going to see a Bollywood movie, I had held off the liquids for hours in advance, ready for a bladder-bursting several-hour stint, and I was just settling in when it ended. Oh well: I suppose that is the downside of the Americanizing.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The city don't know what the city has got.

Do not underestimate Virginia Woolf: an awful lot does depend (did you know she and William Carlos Williams shared syntax?) on having a workspace of your own.

Libraries here open at 10 on Saturdays, and, well, let's just say I wake up a bit before that. I am not trying to take type-A cred there. It just that the sun comes up FUCKING EARLY here.

So what to do until 10, after the bath is taken, deodorant is applied and the clothes are on? Important note: we are busily preparing for Noah's Flood up here. That means that when I arrived at what is, this morning, the Big 80s Coffee Shop (I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine), and found that it opened at 8:30 and it was only 8:23, I had to go nextdoor to the big chain sandwich shop to get something to fill those few minutes. Honest: I was more interested in the dry spot than in the cherry danish--really.

Then at 8:37 of course there was a new temporary sign up about how no coffee or Big Eighties for me until 9:00. Then one of those little frowny faces, as if that might stem my torrent of profanity.

All of which to say I regret my somewhat self-righteous and relieved tone of yesterday's post, where I suggested that being a temporary transient might make me a better worker, because less screwing around on the web.

When I wrote that I had not anticipated trying to read about fascist hierarchs in Italian while listening to La Isla Bonita! Not to mention the table next to me, with a self-involved graduate student describing the brilliance of her recent publication to a prospective student.

So I may blow this pastry stand sooner than planned, to hit the library when it opens. Of course that means another umbrellaless mad dash through campus. Think dry thoughts for me.

Friday, April 01, 2005

WARNING: too much self-revelation

Forgive recent e-silence. You see, now I am working. Before, sure, I was working, but I was working at home, which meant too many chances to chat with you instead of work.

How are you?, you would ask, in that way you have, of poking around in my blog.

Not too bad. Could not give two shits today about my research, I'm afraid. Hey, check that out: look at who has been reading my blog! And check out that article about selling stupid crap in space! Soooooo much more interesting!

So what have you been doing lately?

Oh, you know, washing dishes, walking around the house to hear how the birds sound through different windows, seeing if a cat wants in, reading half of an article in Italian, surfing around to see who has something new to say...

So how exactly do you get any work done?

Shut up--I so did not ask for your opinion.

This week, though, I am a reformed being. I have come around to the ways of productivity. No really, I have, and it is all because I have to make an effort to find a web connection, and I might just as well open a book and read it.

Imagine--a book! For instance, I just finished Ali Smith's Hotel World. Apparently it was a Booker Runner-up (or is that Mann Booker--who knows). To tell the interwoven story of four women (one dead), it wends its way through different representations of time. Each chapter is named after a verb tense, for instance. And the action of the story centers around a hotel, where some of the characters work or have worked, and others stay. The hotel itself is the perfect setting, because hotels are such unreal places of fantasy, where we imagine lives of luxury or importance, or where we work to facilitate that fantasy for others. Anyway, don't want to blow the story. Tear yourself around from your own machine and go read it.

But here in my less-wired world, the question is, how do I convey to you, unsuspecting reader, what it is to spend a month away from home, working in an archive.

I will start with where I am, and save the archive for tomorrow. This town has, over the last 9 or 10 years, become my home of libraries. I have learned something of its nooks and crannies, and I love being the outsider with few local connections: I do not run into people I know, I do not have lunch dates, I neither cook nor have dinner cooked for me at any special time, I go to movies when I want to, I stay up as late or not as I want. I admit I do have little conversations with the people on the local NPR and jazz and classical stations. I practice the names of nearby towns, where I have never been, but whose projected high temperatures and chances of rain I learn every day. Does it matter that I wore this sweater yesterday?

I am staying next door to the music building on campus, so I can listen to students practicing, their piano and vibraphones mixing with amazingly trained voices (hard to imagine them coming from someone so young). My bathroom has a deep bathtub but a sticky dusty floor. My room has a single bed with a flowery spread and one outlet, with an amazing branching collection of splitters and extension cords. It supports two lamps, heating pad (for sorry back), hotpot, computer sometimes, alarm clock, phone charger.

I am still disappointed that the Cool Jazz Coffeeshop (does the place's real name matter?) has in the last year transformed itself. A few mornings ago it was the Lowkey R&B Coffeeshop. Not bad, all things considered, but not the CJC. I suppose it was the guy who worked in the mornings--who used to mock me for always ordering orange juice, dark-roast coffee and a cinnamon bun, but always having to consider it--who chose that station from all the other Sirius (Cerius?) satellite stations. This morning, I can only report a proliferation of red hot mamas, god-fearin women got the blues, dear mom and dad please send money, drinking bones and party bones, hell yeah I'm American, hick towns &c. on the cheesy country station, not to mention the ads about "before Sirius country came along, I had to talk to my wife--thanks Sirius!"

Eating alone in restaurants is its own art. Much easier to see a movie alone, if only because everyone in the theater is facing the same direction, and before long only notice what is on the screen (unless, like me, you have the bad luck to always share the theater with the man of many sinus problems). But restaurants are supposed to be about dates, or business dinners, or friends catching up after too long. Sometimes I do not mind that I am, again, encouraged to have a seat in the lounge, or that the host looks at me with that pity reserved only for single women. You have to have done this enough times not to buy into the look, or start to believe it and look for places offering take-away.