This piece of music is very important to me. I can't explain it. It's the 'Prelude' that plays when you open the map in the original Final Fantasy game. TCELES B HSUP.
This piece of music is very important to me. I can't explain it. It's the 'Prelude' that plays when you open the map in the original Final Fantasy game. TCELES B HSUP.
Some stuff I've been listening to, these last few months, and some reasons why.
This list is taken from a long, long essay I'll never finish.
karma. i've never liked what pharoah sanders brought to trane's group in 65-67, but this spiritual successor to a love supreme is deep, deep music -- 'the creator has a master plan' is the only imaginable setting in all the world's history in which the sudden appearance of a yodeler in a jazz band makes absolute cosmic sense.
big fun. an inexplicably overlooked collection of miles's electric stuff from his multi-keyboard (bitches brew) and guitar-driven (jack johnson/on the corner) periods, 1969-72. the opening track mixes one of miles's jams with a gorgeous zawinul tune; the rest is miles. yes there's sitar. you can move to it, but unlike jack and corner it's not about relentless groove -- this is freakambient bliss, in the bitches brew mould but with less percussive churn. this one's gotten deeper in retrospect; its harmonic complexity is so carefully controlled, you don't notice it burrowing into the center of the earth and going sublime.
sextant. i'd be happy to live in a world in which every copy of the self-consciously 'easy' (but still brilliant) party album head hunters -- everyone's got one, right? -- was replaced overnight, magically, by one of herbie's astonishing mwandishi albums. hearing sextant today is a shock; it's 40 years old and still sounds futuristic. the first half of the album carefully establishes the template: 'rain dance' and 'hidden shadows' explore electroweird noise and odd-meter ambient funk grooves, respectively. the second half, the 20-minute suite 'hornets,' is a psychotic outbreak over a big fun beat. combine with herbie's crossings for a twice-told trip.
the jewel in the lotus. i'm going to be listening to this album for the rest of my life. bennie maupin is the sax devil on the contemporaneous head hunters (and sextant!) but this -- a killer ensemble playing his beautifully strange compositions -- is music from another world. as uniquely pretty as eastern sounds but more contiguous, more organic...darker and lighter (than air).
love, love. julian priester was the trombonist in the mwandishi group; love, love has more Free intensity than that seminal band, but a little less richness, even if the sonic template is the same. still, the weird horn sectionals and priester's wild trombone solos lift this album up. not bedroom music unless you have a rocket-powered trapeze in there, which (then again) might actually render music wholly superfluous.
spheres. just kidding! this keith jarrett solo performance, on a gigantic pipe organ in ottobeuren, germany, is the further thing in the entire universe from 'groove' (or 'groov' if you must, though you mustn't), never mind jarrett's knotty piano style. if you hate it, you're not alone. but you might not. if you breathe into it and let it open out over an evening, in ideally in the dark, you'll hear spontaneous art that will never, ever sound dated or cliché.
live in tokyo. weather report, a band i don't always have time for (particularly from the late 70s on), in their early transitional form -- less fragmentary or menacing than miles's early 70s stuff, less sonically rich; there's even plain old swing here, sounding slightly anachronistic in retrospect. this is 1972 and sounds like it: the same music played on acoustic piano and bass would sound demented and ever new, but on distorted rhodes it's a little dinky. they had a way to go at this point...which means they're very much in motion. it's exciting. it's alright.
tales of the exonerated flea. friends, i give you drummer/composer/bandleader horacee arnold. this record is ridiculous, as weird and intriguing as its name. the opening track sounds like 'discipline,' the second features a schizoid guitar breakdown over tablas and flute, the third is carnal filth before the pervy synth bass kicks in...the rest of the thing is crazier and somehow even better. n.b., closer 'euroaquilo silence' is sarcastically titled: it's a drum freakout during a robot prison break. i have no idea what to say about this record. it's just fantastic. and for some reason it's available for free on archive.org.
journey in satchidinanda. very, very, very deep and soulful music from trane's widow alice, musical partner in his last years. and holy moley, that's charlie haden trying to knock rashied ali off the drum riser on 'isis and osiris.' this is the pure 'spiritual jazz' strain, taking john coltrane's late music as the template but substituting cascades of harp for trane's polychordal lines and washing out ali's drums with bells and tamboura. it sounds like a buddhist cultural center on 150ug of clear light acid, and it will take you as far as you want it to.
the rubaiyat of dorothy ashby. pair with alice for a mind-altering trip through afro-asian hard bop and funk-soul(?!). when i talk about this era of cosmic jazz as the peak of american music, silly as it all sounds (even to me), this is the kind of thing i have in mind -- virtuoso technique, deep emotional and spiritual intensity, fearless border crossing, total devotion to a musical vision that takes the players well out of themselves. the closing cut, 'the moving finger,' is bedroom music for polymorphously perverse sophisticates. on a better earth than ours, this is part of the pantheon.
stone flower. jobim doesn't fit the taxonomy here, but this 1970 album, like the dorothy ashby mentioned above, perfectly fits the mood of the collection without sounding like anything else in it. yes, that electric piano gets groovy at times; yes, the flavour is jazz though the genre isn't (you could say the same of sinatra); yes, that soprano sax solo on 'god and the devil in the land of the sun'(!) could've come right from any of a dozen albums on this list. but this is its own thing: one of the great bedroom albums ever, fitting neatly beside yusef lateef and bennie maupin in its hushed intensity.
shabazz. pure fire: jazz-funk drummers, here's your bible. bandleader/drummer billy cobham is way up in the mix and damn well knows it. not so much 'restful,' though, so find something energetic to do while you listen. ideally with a very close friend who finds you physically and emotionally attractive.
interstellar space. peak coltrane, freely duetting with drummer rashied ali on skeletal forms. probably one of the most difficult of trane's albums, and certainly a challenge for listeners not already steeped in trane's musical language. but oh my god, this is holy fire: the great post-bop tenor in free flight at the apex of his creativity and power, soon to die. visionary art.
agharta. along with pangaea, recorded the same day(!!) in japan, this titanic live album marks the endpoint of miles's 70s rock experiments: five months later he went into seclusion for the remainder of the decade. it's impossible to imagine being at a show like this: the unremitting intensity of the music, its oceanic depth, must have terrified the audience. it terrifies me now.
jarrett/haden/motian/redman. like jarrett's spheres, this body of work doesn't fit the template laid out in the article -- but you can draw lines from here to there. the same energies feed this band. this is one of the great working bands of the 70s playing intensely spiritual jazz, every member of the band hitting hard on every tune, exploring jarrett's eccentric and quintessentially american musical idiom. with this lineup it's no surprise that the band doesn't sound quite like any other, but it bears repeating: this is a once-in-a-century band, better at the everyday stuff than almost everyone but also getting into its own totally unique thing. get the live Impulse stuff first.
It's a poem. It's beautiful. That's enough. We're not factcheck.org; our responsibility is to share the vision. Everything else is...criticism. Spare me.
IVE BROTHERS HEAR ME BROTHERS SIGNAL ME
ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS DO YOU WELL
I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK BROTHERS I AND
MINE SURVIVE BROTHERS HEAR ME SIGNAL ME
DO YOU WELL I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK I
ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS I AND MINE
SURVIVE BROTHERS DO YOU WELL I ALONE
IN MY NIGHT I HOLD IT BACK I AND MINE
SURVIVE BROTHERS SIGNAL ME IN MY NIGHT
I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK AND WE SURVIVE
--James Merrill, 'God B,' THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER
Google employee Tim Bray says something disquieting about Google Glass:
Do They Meet a Need? Seems pretty obvious to me; I’m damn sick of hauling out my mobile to find out what time it is, or to check on my next meeting, or to glance at a map, or to snap a quick photo of an interesting streetlight or whatever.
This is a more or less physically competent adult male, folks. Please consider for a moment that this person with two arms and legs and a functional nervous system and a reputation for being thoughtful and tech-savvy is saying that it's too much trouble to do the following:
If you find yourself wondering sometime whether the human race is long for this world, just read Bray's post -- in which he cavalierly dismisses privacy concerns and points out that after a short time you stop noticing that they are present (fun!) -- and rest assured that people like him, who think checking a Rolodex is a Real Hard Time, who see omnipresent computing and constant surveillance not as Awesome or Scary but as Just Not That Big a Deal, have made themselves essential to the functioning of Western civilization.
Google Glass might not be the right hill to die on, privacy-wise, soul-wise, but you've got to pick one.
When obtaining any magical result (including failure) always think of several explanations for it. These explanations should contain at least one each of the following types:
- An explanation based on the parameters of the magical system that you have been employing.
- Strict materialism
- Something exceptionally silly.
--Phil Hine, Condensed Chaos
Tom Frank's first book, The Conquest of Cool -- a cleanup of his dissertation, if I remember right -- is about the deadly co-optation of counterculture rhetoric by megacorporations. His writing from that time is still worth reading. Here's some:
If you're unhappy with your lot, the Culture Trust tells us with each new tale of [Henry] Rollins, if you feel you must rebel, take your cue from the most disgruntled guy of all: Lift weights! Work hard! Meditate in your back yard! Root out the weaknesses deep down inside yourself! But whatever you do, don't think about who controls power or how it is wielded.
That's not entirely fair to Henry Rollins, I think, but most of the buckshot hits its target.
Is America better off with 10M people watching Fox, 5M watching MSNBC, and 5M watching CNN? Or with everyone watching Cronkite?
Hint 1: Which came first, the emancipatory revolutions of the Sixties or cable television?
Hint 2: Which had a bigger impact on the Arab Spring: the invasion of Iraq or Twitter?
Hint 3: Would you rather have an RL friend or a Facebook friend? Which do you accumulate faster?
Hint 4: Occupy Wall St went from posing for the cameras to purchasing homeowner debt and delivering emergency relief. Which strategy has accomplished more?
The shift from 'free software' to 'open source software' should be treated as yet another example the neutering of a radical political program in the name of commerce, not as a small neutral unique rhetorical shift among a small group of computer guys. The fact that this happens all the time is more important than the question of who, in particular, is involved. This is not a discussion about technology itself, it's about actual freedom. The ascent of O'Reilly to minor pop-intellectual status isn't about him, it's not really about his ideas, it's about the system that his ideas prop up...which is the same as ever.
If 'Web 2.0' were called 'the endless technosocial carousel, rotation one million,' the stakes would be clearer.
Haven't yet sorted my thoughts on Evgeny Morozov's extremely protracted bludgeoning of Tim O'Reilly. The Metafilter thread is here, and its bog-standard MeFi snark/cynicism is less out of place than usual -- have a look. Bear in mind, though, the Morozov piece is 16,000 words long(!!!!!!!!). The throat-clearing along takes ages.
Lots of folks in my online circles recommend O'Reilly's technoutopian popcrit; fewer bring up Morozov, though Morozov's the deeper (I wouldn't say 'broader') thinker, not to mention an up-and-comer in tech-skeptic criticism. But then, Morozov's worldview is (literally) foreign to the tech-boosterish folks I know. This essay, unsurprisingly from The Baffler, feels like a nonideal entry to a very important conversation that not enough people realize needs to happen.
The only audience that'll read the piece, by the way, is inclined to violently disagree with it; that's a big part of the problem. I'm sickened and worried at the number of 'intelligent' people chiming in (on O'Reilly's Google+ page, for instance) to say nothing more than 'too angry, too lengthy, I couldn't figure out his point so I stopped reading.' Is it really necessary to point out what's wrong with those comments? (Especially when the same folks are happy to *nodnod* along to Eric Raymond's ranting...)
The problems with the piece are clear from the beginning and others are pointing them out, from fast'n'loose facts to undisciplined prose. But its virtues shouldn't be buried deep.
I think this point bears restating, over and over: one of the problems with O'Reilly and folks in his line of work -- the invited-speaker set, the 'disruptive tech' conference set, the TED set, the guys who attach 'Big-' or '-2.0' or '-ification' or especially 'Open-' to arbitrary words and then cash your check -- is that their pop utopianism looks like 'sensible' progressivism spiced with technolibertarianism, or vice versa, but it only succeeds in a market atmosphere that they helped create, through precisely the profitable word games Morozov is decrying. Ultimately, 'Web 2.0' and its rhetorical cousins are about selling gadgets, not feeing the poor; and 'joining the elite' isn't the same as 'changing the world,' even though in joining the elite your own tiny world does in fact change (it has lots more money).
The revolutionary-Internet myth is dangerous for a ton of reasons, all much much older than the Internet, and Morozov's important contribution is to point out that the (they're always) men with a vested interest in promoting that myth shouldn't be taken seriously as neutral analysts. O'Reilly is either a sage or a marketer, but he can't be both. Morozov argues that we should treat him solely as the latter, and see where that gets us.
He just doesn't need 16,000 words to do it. Hey Ev: freelance editor for hire, here!
A whole bunch of women in pink hair dye and rainbow clothes and pins featuring the guy who plays Moriarty on Sherlock came in to Luna a moment ago and I thought, 'Oh, a nerd convention of some kind. No guys. Fandom, then.' A quick bit of googling about tells me it's Muskrat Jamboree, a 'multi-fandom slash convention' right here in Cambridge. Reading about the community inevitably leads to reading about Due South, 'the show about the Mountie with the guy from Slings and Arrows,' and digging into any one show's online fandom is a time suck and a mind killer. Just don't.
I hope they're having a nice weekend.
Weeks ago there was a weird discussion board thread about how this guy's dad had died and now he's uncommunicative and very late delivering on a $50K Kickstarter, so (the consensus was) It Is Therefore Right and Good that people get refunds, not just later (when he's finished taking foreeeeeever mourning) but right goddamn now; I read every post and then posted that this behaviour is repulsive, embarrassing, etc. I was not polite, because I was angry. It is totally inappropriate to piss on a human being in mourning, even if he has $50 of yours and you don't yet have your Elf Dungeon he promised to make for you. I say this despite the fact that I find the man in question to be something of a jerk.
This is the sort of thing I do when I can't concentrate on work; it's one of the reasons I'm often unhappy about my leisure practices.
Anyway I got banned for a week, which wasn't a huge surprise -- (some of) the forum's mods have a reputation for being emotionally retarded parochial shits, and as I said, I was not polite. But I believe I was right to post as I did.
This is what the Internet brings you to, folks.
"...it was a distinctive quality of the Obama campaign that it offered not just particular legislation or programs, but a radical recasting of the mood of politics in a democracy dangerously detached from its own founding virtues. His complete failure to vindicate that promise — indeed, his abandoning of nearly all the terms of innovative political approach that got him elected — is far more serious and devastating than his particular failure to follow through on health policy, the Middle East, etc. He has raised and dashed hopes in a way that no one has done here for two generations. That seems to me grounds for despair. What would you have me say? That he may yet do better? That he inherited a tough situation? That all politics is the art of compromise? All true. And all secondary to the scale of lost hopes."
From the Slate piece:
Swartz didn't know Stallman personally, but he was inspired by the programmer’s morals, and by the fact that he’d fostered an organization that took ethics seriously while also getting things done. In 2002, Swartz saw Stallman speak at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention. “The most interesting thing I learned … was how human Stallman is,” Swartz wrote afterward. “As people asked him long questions he would practice his dance steps. He’d make jokes about everything. I could really see being him.”
Developmentally-arrested analytical types sometimes put on performative, essentially monologic cuteness where socio-normative (neurotypical?) folks can reach out and access other people's/groups' (let's call them) emotional/social APIs. Richard Stallman is famously unable to parse, or else just doesn't care, that practicing dance steps while people ask you questions is an impediment to open communication for most people. I suspect (given everything I've read by and about him) that Aaron Swartz liked that shit precisely because it was an efficient, eminently logical solution to the problem of social intercourse's, illogical, improvisatory, and decidedly not-you-centric nature -- the fact that a conversation is a two-player activity, and the other person just isn't at all like you. Stallman manifestly doesn't care, maybe even can't care. Other people call this 'childlike'; it's not a good model for adults' being in the world; it makes me sad.
Aaron Swartz's death makes me angry at everyone whose 'bye-bye Aaron' blog post (there are so, so, so goddamned many) begins with some variant on 'We were once/distant friends online, I admired him, I felt protective of him, we had lost touch.' Fuck you for playing a dead man's friend instead of telling him to get some fucking help. Or just helping him.
Being annoyed by (indeed, noticing) hipsters is participating in hipsterism.
OK, so hipsters fetishize childhood -- theirs in particular, which is why the 80s are all of a sudden this period of aesthetic revolution -- we know this and so f@#king what.
False dawn of the grunge era: 'the end of history.' As usual, Hitchens has it (from a talk with Andrew Sullivan):
A: The last four years, or five years – the last ten years, I could say, more generally – to any believing Christian, observant Christian, like myself, have been a sort of reading period in the dangers of religion. I don’t think in my lifetime this has ever been clearer, to any observer, in world history, for a very long time, how dangerous this is. When was the last time we had this kind of religious terror?
H: We’re not now speaking just of Christianity’s fanatics.
A: No, we’re not, we’re talking about Islam.
H: Just when people had begun to think that the age of totalitarian ideology had gone, the idea of the one leader, the one supreme…
A: The one truth.
H: …the one truth, the one party – just when one thought one had left that all behind…
A: It comes back like Glenn Close out of the bathtub.
H: I once did a calculation: I was in Romania in 1989 and in Hungary, at the end of communism. I saw the end of Ceausescu. I thought, Alright, that’s it, in Europe anyway – but it seemed globally – the idea of the absolute leader, the absolute party, the undisputable truth is over. And maybe our future will be a little bit banal. I remember reading the Fukuyama stuff and thinking, probably true, but a little tedious.
A: I could live with it. I could absolutely live with it.
H: How bad is the idea of, you know, essentially a market economy and essentially a political pluralism? You know, as someone who had once had utopian opinions…I didn’t feel pumped up by it but I thought, hmm, doable. And people talked about at that stage, the peace dividend – remember that expression?
A: I do.
H: Now think of all the money we’ve been spending on the Cold War, we don’t have to spend it anymore, on the weaponry. Think, furthermore, which we now can, on the better uses for it; the long neglected crisis in Africa, the problem of AIDS, the general problem of poverty and degradation and of failure of other societies to have caught up with whatever we want to call it. The market-pluralist model, at a minimum. We have all these chances now!
That, I calculated once, I don’t remember how many days it went on, but I think it was 120 days of this illusion. Not very long before Slobodan Milosevic invaded Bosnia – we’d overlooked this little dictator in the Balkans – and Saddam Hussein abolished the existence of Kuwait; not invaded it, as some people say, but annexed it and said, a member state of the United Nations, of the Arab League and the Islamic Conference no longer exists, it belongs to me personally, and my crime family. Ah, how interesting!
You were a child in the 80s, therefore the 80s were (are) childhood, so the forces that took them away from you (90s pop; Muslims; partisan politics; your parents getting divorced) have to be kept at bay by the forces that take you back to your blessed 80s, to childhood (comic books; leader worship; hair product or pointedly not using it; Wall Street as apolitical hero/villain; dandy moralizing nouveau; pretending to like football to impress someone you want to 'smooch'; fake plastic things designed to look like real things; cell phones as status objects; synth pop).
Your personal history breaks across a Bad Thing. 9/11, getting molested, Pearl Harbor, Kennedy dying, the family splitting up, Challenger exploding.
You're two halves and spend your life trying to force your hated grown self to innocence. Well well well well well: innocence isn't real, and growing is the best thing in life. Innocence just means 'not yet.' Thank god you can't go back.
consider too that miles was in the studio doing bitches brew as fripp et al. put the finishing touches on in the court of the crimson king. which album was the more deeply 'psychedelic,' not to mention the more revolutionary? but then, that's the troublesome word, isn't it: as soon as you say 'revolutionary' in a conversation about black musicians (or anything else), folks start to get anxious. that's one reason to hold up this music: radical transformations of african-american culture and the broader american culture, now thought of as Part of the Whole Sixties Thing, deepened and diffused throughout the 70s (before the weird switch-flip of the reagan/thatcher era). the best jazz of that time is high euro, it's african, it's folk (just not 'folk'), it's classic songs and filthy grooves, it's dangerous, it's historically minded, it's daft futurism, it's romantic, it's violent, it's part of a century-old deeply american tradition, it's everything you could want out of music except comfort.
many people want nothing from music except comfort.
My man Mike and his beautiful wife Luana had a baby daughter – future hippie Nobelist footballer no doubt – and I was so proud and glad for them; every time my friends have babies I get this feeling like we might be able to raise a loving beautiful army of generous fools to suffuse everything with light. To take the word further or something, or in the first place at least find out what the word might be. Become a polytonal love song (maybe all the songs and sounds).
The Jazz Spectrum on WHRB played Trane's studio 'My Favorite Things,' all tightly wound menacing groove. Tyner barely even solos, he just keeps that vibrant swinging six going in the piano's midrange (the four feels too soon every single time and then isn't) while Elvin paces back and forth on the drum forbidden for the moment from tearing the place down. Steve Davis thumps out that droning open fifth over and over until it stops being an ostinato or even a formal musical element at all and becomes a, Christ, I guess a principle or a topological aside (mountains recurring out a train window). Then Trane comes back for his second solo all cascades and collapsing free across key clusters, his tone strangely pinched and splitting into harmonics when he really moves.
In college I'd fall asleep to A Love Supreme and never wondered whether that was normal. It's not, but then what is?
I haven't listened to Trane in a long time, and had forgotten what a powerful effect his music has on me. One of my few 'religious' activities is to listen to 'Venus' (off Interstellar Space, his duet album with Rashied Ali) alone in the dark at a time of intense transformation. It is always a harrowing, ultimately joyful experience. Last time I listened was the week after Edgar died.
Hearing Trane's 'Summertime' today bore me up that way.
Afterward a friend asked about things and I talked about the day my son was born. The day feels like too much. 'But in a good way,' as if that meant a goddamned thing. As if 'good' could survive the absolute immensity of it. Is the ocean good? The question washes away.
...because Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII is harrowing to read about. If this isn't one of the saddest, scariest, deadliest, craziest moments in history then I can't bear to read any more history. The writing is very fine but the subject matter is almost unbearable.
Unfortunately, having started one book I'm having trouble dipping into another, even to lighten the emotional/cognitive load. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the real stars of this blog, not to mention its head writers: my neuroses. Yep yep.
Won't talk at length about it today, but the Harmontown tour of the Hip United States ended strongly in Portland, San Francisco, and at the Egyptian in L.A. That said, an extraordinary underlying ugliness made it hard to listen to the post-Pittsburgh shows innocently. I strongly recommend Harmontown, which is consistently intense and often transcendent comedy, but between the weird psychodynamics of the ensemble and the Grantland article on Harmon (not nearly enough about the rest of the crew) and, let's face it, how screwed up and unpleasant Dan Harmon is, I can't say it's the easiest listening in the history of podcasts. That's not bad in itself, of course…
I do want to talk more about it later. It's a deep show. Something special about it.
The miracle year for flicks is 1984, but for genre fiction it's 1981, which brought two volumes of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, John Crowley's Little, Big, and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Jesus! Imagine being a lover of SF/F and having Wolfe, Crowley, and Hoban crash into your world one after the other.
(1984 wasn't so bad for SF either -- Neuromancer carries the year all by itself, doesn't it.)
...but I know they're going on now because everyone in my Twitter feed is talking about the Oscars, or not talking (what's up Farhad). And it sucks, because the Oscars suck -- they celebrate bullshit, tackily -- and my Twitter feeder-er-ers don't suck a priori. Am I misusing that phrase?
Other thing that sucks, by the way: being at the Med Center all morning. And: worrying all day about meningitis. Which is 'totally a thing,' as the children say, though probably not a thing anyone in my family has at present, touch wood.
When I started this blog I think I changed the default category from 'Movies' to 'Film' and now I regret it. They're just movies.
I have all these things I want to write but this is the first time I've been able to do anything but fret about illness pretty much all weekend. It'll have to wait, blah blah.
Finished John Polkinghorne's Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction last night between bouts of dishwashing and playing Letterpress. I recommend it to interested nonscientists, as Polkinghorne makes it all the way through the main text without leaning on mathematical formalism (though he does head for the weeds a couple of times). I doubt it will be of much use to readers with strong math chops.
The point of the book is not to give a solid conceptual grounding in quantum theory. Unlike The Brain (in the same admirable series from Oxford University Press), which really does endeavour to explain the most basic workings of the brain in layman's terms, Polkinghorne's book is split between a history of the evolution of quantum physics, on one hand, and on the other, what's become Polkinghorne's chief professional interest: the epistemological debates that swirl around the field. (The author left the academy to become an Anglican minister, then returned to Oxford to work on science/faith questions.) As a result, you end the book aware of the contours of quantum theory as it stood upon the book's publication, but most of the book's informational payload is historical, while its method is almost impressionistic.
Polkinghorne uses the phrase 'cloudy and fitful' throughout the book to describe the quantum view of the world (vs the crisp mechanism of the Newtonian world), and I got the feeling that, having given up on the possibility of teaching a lay reader anything about the body of quantum theory as such, he was hoping to communicate the inescapable intensity of quantum theory's challenge to more or less everything humans have ever known about the world. Which is hugely interesting in itself, duh, and surely easier for Joe the Local Library Patron to wrap his head around than Hamiltonians and Hilbert spaces, but…
But I tend to think that one of the deepest problems faced by students at any level is being scared away from using the tools they have (by incompetent teachers, peer pressure from assholes, early trauma, selfishness, etc.). The 'cloudy and fitful' nature of the quantum world is scary and beautiful and intriguing, but what the physicist knows (and most students never learn, never feel in their bones) is that millennia-old mathematical tools offer an inroads into the questions opened up by quantum theory. Polkinghorne does his best to generate the abyssal feeling that open questions about the universe can give, but 99% of people will stop there and unconsciously choose not to worry about it, and the most effective weapon against that defense mechanism is sharpened skill. Stating the question is quite different from having the foggiest (cloudiest, most fitful) idea of how to make your way through it. To live with it.
Anyhow, I enjoyed the book, but it feels a bit like the right start to the wrong thing, if that makes any sense.
Up next: Tony Judt's Postwar. Lovely and sad so far. (The Apocryphal Gospels intro book isn't very exciting, and is taking me forever.)
Steven Berlin Johnson comes in for a vicious beating in The (impressively redesigned) New Republic this week. I'm reminded of the deep shock I felt reading Everything Bad Is Good for You in 2006: here was a grown man (who'd written a pop neuroscience book!) arguing, straight-faced, that the length of a linear process (e.g. a list of 'bring token A to container B' steps in a Zelda game) was a measure of something he called 'complexity' – which in his rendering was apparently the same as complication – and the dilettante 'critical' press was falling over itself to praise him. He really did want readers to think that the most important thing about trash like Survivor was that it required both basic strategy from its players and 'emotional intelligence' from its viewers…and that somehow this was connected to the number of scene changes in an episode of The Sopranos (irrespective of the ambivalence or emotional complexity of that show), and the Flynn Effect, and teaching kids to program…
It was flattering to the acolytes of my corner of academia (MIT Comparative Media Studies, Henry Jenkins's shop, which benefited hugely from the presence of old-guard literary scholars like Pete Donaldson and David Thorburn when initially forming up), and it was catnip to the same assholes who pay to see Malcolm Gladwell speak, but SBJohnson's book is a textbook example of driving a single semireasonable (and indeed very old and not terribly interesting) claim right off the cliff of wanting to be invited to conferences.
The hedgehog knows one big thing, but guys like Johnson (Shirky, Jarvis, de Landa, Benkler) make their career out of knowing one little thing – in fact they all seem to know the same little thing. (This might be giving Manuel de Landa too little credit. Then again, it might not.) Evgeny Morozov's essay (linked above) shines a harsh light on that one little thing; I recommend it. In particular, anyone who read Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites will recognize the elites-without-accountability effect Morozov claims to see in Occupy Wall Street:
One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media ... they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shot done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other ... you know what's worse than regular same-old elites? An [sic] barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can't ever be called to account.
I can't unreservedly recommend all of Morozov's articles for TNR (an ugly technophobia is obvious in his TED Books piece, for instance), but this one's worth reading.
From space, flip and flop look the same.
I've been very sick for a couple of days, and taking care of my very sick son for a couple days before that. It's been podcast time. Dan Harmon (creator of Community) and Jeff Davis ('suit-clad gadabout,' formerly of Whose Line Is It Anyway?) do a show called Harmontown -- it's a chance for the compulsive, depressive, 'self-destructive' Harmon to get some performative therapy, in the form of long unhinged rants and the occasional piece of surprisingly deft two-handed improv. Sometimes Harmon's girlfriend and comedienne/improvisor Erin McGathy joins in.
Every week they play Dungeons & Dragons with a DM named Spencer, whom they plucked from the crowd at the Nerdmelt Theater in LA. He is their Karl Pilkington.
They are on tour right now (yes, even Spencer), releasing each of twenty mostly-nightly shows as a free podcast the very next day. I've been listening to Harmontown for a while. At times it's brilliant, transcendent, heartrending not-quite-comedy of the kind Community fans know well, as when Harmon read a loooooong excerpt of his teenage journal onstage; I actually cried during that bit. At times it's two drunks fucking around onstage. The tour is going very, very well so far; they are nervous and feeling their way through things.
Please give them a listen.
I read a bunch of Cosmicomics while visiting a two-years-older friend at college; I was a senior in high school and had never driven as far as Cornell, which I liked well enough. He recommended the book. I stole it. It's there on my shelf now, but I haven't opened it in years.
The summer after, what, sophomore or junior year at MIT, I used to ride the #1 bus up and down Mass Ave and read long stretches of Ulysses or Borges's stories and lose slowly my mind, or I guess I mean my me. My favourite ideas. I somehow overflowed a toilet at a Chinese restaurant at Wellesley while wearing a purple flightsuit. That is not germane to the story except that I had Joyce with me at the time and felt therefore like I shouldn't be blamed for things going wrong, like fuck you I'm doing something serious here.
I count as maybe the best reading experience of that summer, though, the time I took the Blue Line to Logan and sat (this was well before '9/11' hahahahahahahahahahhaha) in Terminal B overlooking the runway and read If on a winter's night a traveler. I bawled my eyes out because it was so unimaginably beautiful and sounded, I remember, like what the city looked like to me. Not then, as seen from Logan, which doesn't offer a great view as I recall; I mean when young-me would walk around in Boston I'd see it the way that book sounded to me. Frames overlaid, halfstories kind of shuffling forward and then sprouting new story-buds whose course of growth would be the next, what, five minutes or an hour of my day. Of young-me. That was a blissful summer. Or no, it was the summer when Jen and I split up and I was sad all the time; but then young-me worked like a dog that summer, and drove home from SIGGRAPH in 'The Violet Beauregard,' which Xor insisted was actually called 'Flumph' or something awful; and the toilet overflowed a little while after that.
For the life of me I can't care about that. The toilet. The only important thing was bliss in the Terminal, and changing. Is. The only important thing is.
In the late 16th century, Christian monks made their first inroads into the mountainous regions of the European (sub)continent, leaving behind the comparatively cosmopolitan culture of the late-medieval plains cities. They were stunned to find a Weird mishmash of paganism, folkloric belief, bog-standard (but bizarre) rural practices…not to mention a strong brew of millennial terror and populist anger.
In this environment, the 'witch craze' – the seemingly insane belief that a conspiracy of women was riding through the skies at night, fucking demons and messing up the wheat crop – was a channel by which social terror could be made to serve the needs of Power. The Catholic Church and its sister nation-states were the sole beneficiaries of these heretic-purges; yet pretty much everyone supported (and enjoyed) a good witch burning.
When I used to go home to Western New York from college, I'd be shocked at how primitive everything (and in my vicious awfulness, everyone) seemed. I was egotistical, yes, and resentful, and didn't understand how grownups could possibly hold such backward views on topics from information technology (good!) to carrying on in the woods with guns (bad!) to boys and boys doing sex (weird but OK!).
The purging of heterodox fantasy from mainline (urban, sophisticated) Christian culture was a great regression, one whose effects are still felt anywhere (say) people think 'fantasy' means 'Tolkien,' or insist that 'culture' means 'idle wealth.'
To state the unpleasant obvious: in this analogy, I and mine are almost certainly the Church.
This is the material that everyone will read, love, enjoy, perhaps cry about. This is the closing.
This is extra
'The Sartorialist' (Scott Schuman) says something dumb:
All the big smile and Midwestern charm (she is from Oakbrook, Chicago) from the first picture are still there but now they are wrapped in a more sophisticated, urbane exterior.
Anyone who can spot the 'big smile and Midwestern charm' in that second picture, please contact me so I can give you a trillion dollars and borrow your remarkable talent for making up shit that is not real.
'Sophisticated'? 'Urbane'? She's affecting anus-mouth for Christ's sake! That's not what smiles look like, you sad bastard. But then maybe to a fashion photographer 'utterly fake-looking' really is a synonym for 'unbelievably sunny and genuine-looking' and that's the secret to true happiness, which I will never attain. I don't know. I am not, as you may have guessed, a fashion photographer.
I made the mistake of reading some earnest 'let's revolutionize human society with a cute new weblog platform' shit from Evan Williams and now I hate everything. Sorry.
It would seem like a missed opportunity never to write a book. Most novels are just dreadful; I don’t know if I could do a good one, but I know I could do better than most.
Nice knowing you, irony.
From an AV Club interview he did this year:
AVC: You’re in Woody Allen’s next film. How did that come about?
LCK: That was a really big deal. In show business, when you really have a career that takes a while, you don’t get those big moments. You don’t get those “Oh my God, it’s me” things. You get the call—“You’re playing Carnegie Hall”—and then you go, “Yeah, well, what are they paying me?” Because how you get to Carnegie Hall is you sell out Town Hall twice in a year, and now you sell enough tickets to do a show at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall is a shitty deal: They have a high-paid crew, and the rent is high, and you don’t make that much money. So that moment that you think is going to be a guy in a tuxedo bringing you a pearly telephone and saying, “You’re playing Carnegie Hall”—it doesn’t happen. You have worked your way there in tiny steps, so by the time you get to Carnegie Hall, it’s as natural as playing anywhere else. [Laughs.] I’ve had a few times where I’ve been told, “You might be getting this thing that’s going to make you feel amazing,” and then it doesn’t happen that way, usually. You work in little steps. This, by the way, isn’t a huge career boost. It’s just for me; it’s personal. But I got a call that Woody’s making a movie and that his casting people wanted to show him my stuff, and so they asked us what to show him. And we said, “Some standup, some episodes, and maybe Parks And Rec.” And I guess we showed him some good stuff. Then I got an email saying, “Woody wants to meet with you and have you read for a part.” And that was a big deal, to know that I’m going to meet him.
AVC: You had to audition.
LCK: Yeah, I was told he wanted me to read. The story I always hear is that he meets you for 10 seconds, and then he decides. He wanted me to read, but he also wanted to meet me. Because the other option is always that you either read for Julia Taylor or you meet Woody, that’s what I’ve heard. You hear these things. There’s a lot of different versions out there. But anyway, I went to his office. I got there early because I was scared to be late, and then I went in to his little office and… very nice people—his assistant, his casting director. Then I was brought into this little room, and he’s standing there, waiting for me, in a sweater. And he looks just like Woody Allen.
That thought was in my head, that he looks just like Woody Allen. And he was very sweet. He said, “Look, I don’t mean to make you read because I think you can’t act. I know you can act. I’m just not sure that you can be this kind of guy. This is a very tough guy.” So he told me to go take the sides outside, think about it, read them, and come back. And when I went outside, I was overcome emotionally. I couldn’t believe I just met him. He was very kind to me, and I met him. It was a big deal for me; I didn’t care if I got the part or not. I really didn’t care. And I went back in and read it, and my heart rate was too high, I couldn’t control it, I didn’t do a perfect job, and they didn’t give me the part. But he found something else for me. So I got a personal letter from Woody saying, “You were too nice to be this guy, but how about this other guy?” The letter was very nice, and it’s my prized possession. It’s framed. If there’s a fire, I grab my kids and then the letter.
A man's words.
Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms, recounting some good ol' D&D campaign stories:
In my home Realms campaign, Elminster once lectured a few of the Knights of Myth Drannor (the PCs' adventuring band) on Faerûnian geopolitics...
That's why everyone hates Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms, by the way. In case you were wondering.
That, and how absolutely boring they are.
OK, back to whatever genuinely interesting thing you were doing before you started reading blogs. Hurry up!
I'd been told Romney was BSing about reaching out to Democrats in Massachusetts during his governorship, and I was happy to accept that assessment (it confirms my biases), but the numbers are stunning:
Factcheck.org reported, based on an independently-obtained list of veto override votes, that out of more than 800 budget line-item vetoes during Romney’s four years as governor, 707 were overridden. A separate Factcheck.org post put the exact number of Romney’s vetoes at 844 – and noted that “more than 700” were overridden.
I'm more than happy to see the man ride off into a privately-owned bespoke sunset, his own little pastel-hued dressage sky-hole just over the horizon; it'd be nice never to think or speak of the man again. That said, it's counterproductive to treat Romney as an anomaly in US party politics. He was always the GOP establishment's handpicked candidate, groomed (dressage again!) for the role for a full decade, and his primary-season opponents were never anything more than a sideshow. He ran exactly the campaign his party's leaders and major financiers wanted. A more competent, less (obviously) delusional man might have snatched victory from the Democrats with the same overall approach -- Romney's willingness to lie, and his ability to do so effortlessly, did not sink him in this election.
The next GOP candidate may be a brown liar instead of a pink one, but the incentives are stacked in favour of lies either way -- on climate change, drug regulation, etc. -- and there'll still be far far far too much money at stake for him to avoid answering to the GOP's worst elements.
(Though on the other hand: if a major hurricane hits Florida in the next two years, a sizable minority of right-wingers get scared into sense on the matter of climate change, and Congress doesn't make strides on the issue under Obama, we might see President Jeb Bush in January 2017. I wouldn't bet on it.)
Leafing through an actual existing paper copy(!) of our local consensus-media rag, the Boston Globe, I'm reminded that the Catholic Church maintains a visceral hold on my imagination, one I'd rather be clear of but never will. 'Our own' Cardinal O'Malley forgets himself (or not), talking about poll numbers and election results and playing the political games that have made the Church both powerful and hated. From the page B1 story, 'Bishops adopt a mandate'(!!):
O'Malley...said Monday that the results of the Nov. 6 election do not reflect increased support for abortion rights in the United States, even though some of the candidates most staunchly opposed to abortion lost.
O'Malley, who will take over as chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Pro-Life Committee this week, said a few prominent abortion opponents may have caused a backlash in their own races by talking about the issue in a way that alienated voters, but the economy and immigration were the main issues driving the outcome...
This seems wrong to me, and tonedeaf in the way so much self-deluding clerical political talk is -- American attitudes about abortion continue to liberalize (or 'radicalize,' a term I don't mind applying to my own views on abortion), and opposition to anti-abortion positions seems to be flowing not from a sudden flash of scientific knowledge but from growing recognition that 'pro-life' agitation is just part of a broader antimodern (post-Pill) rear-guard action against women's autonomy, sexual and otherwise.
What's interesting to me is that the Church has already lost the abortion 'debate' in the West, just as the Right has lost the debate about power and race relations -- and now they're in a weird position, as conservative groups, of being minority defenders of a tradition experienced (not quite 'shared') by the majority. They've subtly shifted from defending consensus (or at least convenience) to circling the wagons. Intriguing organizational dynamic.
The same dynamic has dogged feminism for a long time -- most Americans are accustomed to old-fashioned sex/gender relations, and cultural conservatives of a patriarchal stripe have always been able to equate culture-wide habit with widespread approval. But it seems the majority of Americans have long been ready for a new order, to a greater or lesser extent, and the New Broads in Charge have had the weird task of spreading/enforcing cultural norms that (1) appear to be imposed antagonistically on most Americans, but which (2) most Americans welcome.
I guess I'm saying that polling data about issues like abortion legality will measure neither enthusiasm nor acceptance, but something inbetween, and with a generation's worth of lag between progressive impulse and conservative response, you've got to pass (we're now passing) through a generation of revolt against ideologies that can't recognize that they're dead.
So, back to the Church: Would the Catholic Church be better off, would the faith be healthier and more robust, uncoupled from hegemonic presumption -- allowed to develop as an alternative (even antimodern?) spiritual practice that sees secular scientific modernity as its supplement?
No time to wonder this morning because there is work to be done, worthies.
[Attention conservation notice: 4,000 words or so on bitonality in one band's improvisation, with many mp3 examples and no small amount of handwaving. If you don't know anything about this post's two topics, this is actually a decent place to start. If you like this sort of thing, you might be pleased to know I've written an entire book on the subject.]
I only learned the meaning of the word bitonality a few months ago – I’m 33, this is unforgivable, I’m over it – and now I have a new way of understanding (stating) something I’d been coming to informally for a while. I apologize in advance for the clumsiness and inconsistency of my theoryspeak – I have very little formal harmonic training, and am making most of this up as I go along.
Bitonality is what happens when music is played in two keys at once. Here’s ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ clumsily played on my laptop keyboard (not a piano):
The melody clonks along in the lower register, C-major, and the harmony is just the basic chords: C and G with a dash of Dm to ease our passage. Most Western music sounds like this – it’s ‘correct’ in the sense that the melody fits the harmony. Even if you don’t know or care about the written rules, your ear knows them.
Here’s the same performance, same melody, with the chords transposed one step – now you’re hearing a C-major melody against Bb-major chords.
It sounds wrong in a familiar way. Everything has the same shape as before, but the melody and harmony are differently grounded. Crucially, you can follow either one and it’ll make perfect sense on its own, but unless you’re used to hearing this kind of stuff you’ll find yourself trying to ‘correct’ the sound in your brain, the same way your eyes get used to wearing someone else’s glasses.
Two more versions: melody in C, harmony in C# and F respectively. Note that the first is much more jarring – C against C# is a nasty, unpleasant dissonance to most Western ears (in this setting).
Here’s a far more complex example of real polytonality: Ornette Coleman’s ‘The New Anthem’ from his extraordinary orchestral album, Skies of America. Ornette’s ‘harmolodic’ method involved, among other things, giving a single written-out melody to differently tuned instruments. (The same frequency is notated as Bb on the flute, C on the clarinet, and G on the alto sax – so if all three instruments play what they call ‘C,’ you’ll get an interesting mild dissonance. Do the same with a whole orchestra, well…)
A much less complex example of the same principle, John Coltrane’s ‘Africa’ (from Africa/Brass), which has Trane’s melody set a whole step down from the accompaniment:
You encounter bitonality in Phish’s music all the time, but never for this length of time or at this level of intensity – generally it’s a temporary state to be resolved peacefully, often in the context of a transitional jam or segue. For instance, from the 11/17/97 Ghost:
After a few minutes of the usual Ghost jam in A minor (or ‘A blues’ more descriptively) Trey makes a suggestive move to C major, setting up a very comfortable bitonality; Page dongles around between the harmonic homebase and D major, opening up the sound and crucially including F# in the ‘musical information’ he’s providing. Then around 9:30 (roughly :45 into this clip) Trey plays a simple G-(C)-G-C-F#-C-G melody, which could suggest any of a number of harmonic directions; the entire band jumps on G major (with Page waving at Em/Am for colour) (everyone knows Page is one of the best rock pianists going, right?) and we’re off. The rest of the famous Ghost jam is in G/Gm.
The very mild dissonances and chromatic filigrees in this jam aren’t a patch on Ornette’s crazy scheme in ‘The New Anthem,’ but they’re a useful tool for Phish – when a band member wants to suggest a new direction, he can establish a harmonic tension by moving to a new key (even if it’s a very short trip, like Trey’s move from A minor to C major), and the rest of the band can come along in time – or just as likely, the ‘wrong’ notes can fall back into place in the original harmonic scheme.
Here’s another, more complex example from the same show, the jam out of ‘Johnny B Goode’ in the second set of 11/17/97:
There’s a lot going on here. Trey’s using an FX pedal that splits his tone, producing what’s known as ‘parallel harmony’ – he’s bitonal all by himself, generating the same melody in two keys. It’s an ugly sound in some ways, especially if ears are trained up on ‘voice leading.’ Meanwhile Mike is providing a solid root in funky time while Page studiously avoids what everyone else is doing, preferring little chromatic wiggles – again, he’s the colour man. Fish keeps up a clanging-bell sound on his ride cymbal by striking the middle of the cymbal with the center of his stick, vs a tip-strike near the cymbal’s outer edge; that makes for a more distinct attack on the cymbal, leaving tons of room for the choppy eighth notes being thrown around the ensemble.
This is one of those passages where dancing fans get lost in the music – it’s not clear where ‘home’ is, exactly (hint: Mike is probably home), and the hullabaloo keeps up for another couple of minutes, at which point Trey begins chording and wah-ing and staving off madness. There’s a relatively contained harmonic ‘area’ the band is working in, but they’re still providing a lot of information at once. Still, it’s not meant to be beautiful, it’s meant to be perverse, or at least aggressively tense.
A much more benign mirror image, from the blissful post-Roses jam on the Island Tour:
You might say all three tonal musicians are differently centered here, with Trey’s Ab major the magnetic pole and Mike and Page looking toward Db and a hint of Gb. That’s the most benign kind of superposition; the Phish from Vermont go to that sonic space all the time in their ‘majestic’ or ‘anthemic’ climaxes.
There’s something in Phish’s 2010–2012 music that sounds new to me, something to do with the use of bitonality and harmonic superposition, and I think it’s a big part of the music’s appeal (for me anyhow). Phish spent 2011 getting back into an experimental mode and reached new emotional depths in the process, and in the wake of the triumphant run at Dick’s in Colorado they’re arguably at a career peak. I think it’s worth examining the tools that have gotten them there.
The Grateful Dead were known for protean improvisations: ever-shifting responsibilities, amorphous rhythms, squirmy harmonies. Between Garcia and Lesh it could be hard to find solid harmonic ground (ask Bob Weir!), and the drummers were always chasing each other around like puppies; in tunes like Playin’ and Dark Star that was half the point anyhow. Phish have always taken a more architectural approach, treating improv as a structural element in extended compositions and striving to generate coherent musical forms: tunes like Bowie and YEM are actually built around the climactic arc of their jam segments.
Think of the way the full-band jams in Chalkdust, Bowie, Antelope, Slave, YEM, Gin, Bug, Free, Melt, Mike’s Song, Hood, Char0, Stash, and Disease all build directly to closing unison statements or section changes, with the energy of each improvisation spilling over into its song’s final movement. It’s one of the amazing things about Trey’s songwriting: he’s a master of treating improvisation as a compositional element and sustaining the energy of a tune through a potentially open-ended jam.
What this means, though, is that a Reba or YEM or Bowie jam can’t really afford to wander too far afield – it’s got a rhythmic-harmonic responsibility to the tune that surrounds it. There have been wild ‘Type II’ jams in all these tunes, Bowie especially, but they tend to come at the expense of the song’s integrity; often a really searching ‘psychedelic’ jam is basically a song unto itself. Dark Star works the same – you’ll get long periods of wandering in the woods, then a snatch of Dark Star, then another journey out, etc. There is nothing wrong with this.
Then there’s Light.
Of the Joy/Party Time batch of songs, the all-around best tunes may be Mike’s dazzling tune Sugar Shack (with its crazy-making circus-music break after the chorus and sly chordal movement that reminds me of Animal Collective’s tune Bluish) and Trey’s melancholy anthem Twenty Years Later (reminiscent of his own haunting Come As Melody) – but the breakout live song of 2009–12 has unquestionably been Light, an Eckhart Tolle-inspired rocker that’s mostly just two chords rolling along, six measures at a time. The closing four-part vocal sounds like the Doobie Brothers getting really caffeinated and converting to Buddhism. It’s awesome, even if there’s not much to it in terms of songcraft.
And the song itself offers no clue to where the jam will go.
If memory serves, the first few Light jams were just straight extrapolations of the song’s basic I-IV chord progression; even the 8/7/09 Gorge version, the first canonical take on the song, boils down from B-E to Bm, then slides to the relative major (D) and stays there through Trey’s gorgeous improvised D-G-D-A outro. What Phish do is difficult, but that kind of thing is relatively easy. The band took that approach to the song throughout 2009, keeping the jam mostly upbeat and harmonically straightforward.
They’ve taken it further each year, though. At first the song’s thickening harmonic Stuff was used in the old tension/release role: in the 8/7/10 (Greek Theater) and 12/30/10 (MSG) Lights, Trey gets into some gnarly bitonal soloing (wielding disconcerting whole-tone scales, mostly) to set up dynamic tension, which the other musicians push and deepen before making way for bright major-chord climaxes. It’s wonderful music, especially the sublime Berkeley version, dwelling longer in tension than was typical of Phish’s 90s/00s style but ultimately resolving peacefully. Here’s the transitional passage from the Greek version:
In 2011, the band dug into a new style of densely percussive dissonant near-industrial noise, which some fans dubbed ‘storage jamming’ (after the band’s midsummer watershed ‘Storage Shed’ experiment). Early summer versions of Light fit the mould of the Greek version. Here’s at bit of the 6/12/11 Merriweather version:
That passage ends with the song’s structure restored – a three-measure phrase within the original harmonic scheme. The piano and bass are bashing away in familiar dissonant fashion, still approaching the bitonal nature of the music as a counterforce to the tune’s ‘real’ meaning: triumphant I-IV. Their return to the Light chords is an amazing moment (what other improvisatory group covers such distance and still hits home with such authority?), but it’s a well-characterized species; nearly every version of Stash ever played, for instance, arguably has the same harmonic contour, even if the dissonance in Stash tends to be less protean, more schematic. Here’s three minutes of the 12/30/97 Stash to show what I mean. We join our lads in mid-thrash, hanging on the dominant:
Even with Trey’s tone-splitter going, the dissonance is almost old fashioned: elaborations on the dominant, playfully testing the audience’s patience as all involved look forward to the V-i resolution (the bang at the end). The 6/12/11 Light blurs its blade edge, but you can hear the same method at work in both performances. In each case the jam’s destination is clear, its shape consistent, even if the harmonic material varies.
But then the ‘Storage’ jam happens at Super Ball IX, the band starts digging into genuinely open-ended improvisations again, and what do we have here? the 8/9/11 Tahoe Light.
You’ve got several modes of harmonic opposition at work here from the outset: first Trey builds tension within a conventional I-IV solo by hanging on the fifth and seventh (nothing new but it works); Page starts a I-IIb swing and Trey responds by oscillating between whole-tone assault and fanned major chords at home; on bass, Mike takes turns hammering at the root and leaping across octaves to fill space with chromatic noise. And note what Fishman’s up to on drums: he never once gives us a steady rock beat for more than a couple of seconds, and his ride cymbal is surf rather than clockticks, but he still achieves both wild forward momentum and metronomic certainty. (Fish does rhythmically what Mike and Page achieve harmonically.)
Crucially, the high point of the jam’s first section isn’t a point at all, but rather a diffuse cresting movement – instead of I-IV fulfillment we return to chromatic swirl around the dominant, with Page suggesting iv and v and IIb to the other players. This is something new for Phish, I think: they’re in a complexly dissonant space without firm harmonic ground, but it’s no longer a tension-release technique. They really are just dwelling in that new space, treating the polytonal (eminently danceable!) machine noise as a harmonic end in itself.
And in a single stroke, they’ve equalled the harmonic freedom and perverse complexity of their inspirations while maintaining coherence and empathetic interlock.
Six days later they did it again:
That’s the 8/15/11 Light jam, which eventually melts away into a very fine performance of Trey’s rustic miniature Dirt (whence comes the title of my book, ahem). Listen to that early guitar-led climax, damn! The three tonal players arrive at melodic peak and harmonic home by different routes, each in their own time and tempo, and Fish’s drums are like a stretch of rubber skin giving way, reluctantly then suddenly…instead of landing on the root at the one, all four players gesture at conventional resolution without going for the easy answer. I don’t know about you, but to me those few moments are breathtaking.
The rest of the track sees the band groping for terra firma. It’s swell, but after all that (anti)climactic polytonality they can’t settle down until Trey calls for Dirt. (The rest of the 8/15/11 show is even better.)
Night became day and vice versa, and here’s the 6/23/12 Star Lake Light in all its glory. Ladies and gentlemen, the best rock band in America:
From 3:30–4:40 it’s mixolydian calisthenics, then now-standard Light dissonances sloooooowly unfurl (complete with i-IIb from Page) until 5:50 or so, at which point Trey begins looping a ghostly C# volume swell slightly off time, over everyone else’s Bmaj canter. Now something really neat happens: Trey swells an even more ghostly F, meaning we’ve got B-C#-D#-F (i.e. E#) all at once filling up nearby ears, then he lets out a comforting F# wail; for those keeping score, we’re hearing C#maj against Bmaj, with that F# consequently doing double duty as both sub and dom(-inant). At 7:00 Trey loops a G natural, which both destabilizes both the deep harmonic structure (the band banging away at B) and Trey’s own eerie imposed C#. By 8:30 the entire ensemble has stepped gingerly into C#m – see if you can pinpoint the moment where that happens) – and Trey begins a familiar C#m-F# chord strum with an implied Emaj, offering his bandmates several harmonic directions but insisting on none.
Now try, if you’re able, to identify the moment where the bedroom insinuations of this transitional sorta-funk passage become the carib lilt of Light’s final movement. (Hey remember how this jam used to be Light?!) Listen for Trey’s devilish gambit at 12:10 – talk about nervewracking bitonality, the bastard decides to solo over this blissful groove with his tone splitter on and the mirror line just a whole step above his melody. And listen closely, right at the end, for his zombie chords to signal that a transition to a new song is about to begin.
In the last few years I’ve grown to love a specific feeling that certain art gives me: something like semiotic overabundance, where a piece of art, or a piece of that piece, signifies or implies or is connected to so many different things, seems to move in so many directions, that I happily surrender the intellectual work of taxonomy and keeping track of what everything means, and experience a blissful dissolution of sense. Such art needn’t be super complicated to be wonderfully complex – Gravity’s Rainbow and House of Leaves certainly are, but Riddley Walker, Prince’s ‘7,’ Illuminatus!, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Penn Warren’s poetry, and the Song of Songs of Solomon aren’t, particularly. Nor would be, say, a book full of Dali’s paintings. They’re dense with implication and intertextual connection but still welcoming. They’re lively – richly connected to real life. (I get this same feeling in a small way from Good Night Moon, which I’ll talk more about sometime.)
Phish’s new music, which pairs structural simplicity with (for them) unprecedented richness and freedom, also falls into this latter category. Having experimented with pitiless tension/release exercises, nightmarish open-ended deferrals, protean ambient grooves, and increasingly benign bitonality, Phish have evolved an improvisatory approach that can accommodate polytonality as an end in itself, while preserving the coherence and crazed momentum that have long been their calling card. They’ve been my favourite band for my entire adult life – even when I didn’t listen to them for several years, I was still learning from their music – but they’re playing out of their minds right now, and their evolved aesthetic joyfully affirms so many ideas that, though dear to me, I can’t quite put into words. (Lord knows I’ve tried.)
This isn’t the most ‘advanced’ music out there, to be sure. You might even call it ‘simplistic,’ which isn’t fair isn’t necessarily wrong. But I no longer care. They’ve discovered a blissful polymorphism that I find myself wanting to emulate in my own life. The music is change. I guess I am too.
[excerpted from Fixing You]
the main difficulty with traveling, other than being eaten by carnivorous fish or having an "everyone here is very tan and speaks in gibberish"-related panic attack in the middle of the world's largest shopping mall or something, is adjusting to the little things, the tiny cultural differences that make life living: don't touch the food, don't look directly at sweet bitches or someone will cut off your hand, the mosquitoes have AIDS, there is no internet access unless you go to the city, nearly three hundred miles downriver, past the golden temple. THERE IS NO GODDAMN INTERNET. not 2.0, 1.0, little-known intermediate web technologies like web 1.5. nothing! plus there are sensitivity issues to worry about: how do you approach tiny japanese without being crippled by guilt, knowing that they've already lived through the 21st and 22nd centuries once, are aggressively fixing up the 23rd century with nanobots and thermonuclear magic spells at the moment (contemporary japan is what the 23rd century will look like if we make sexbots not only legal but *mandatory*), and now here you come with your stupid questions about "how do they make tempura" and "why did the police outfit me with this GPS-enabled dog collar when i got off the plane in tokyo," things like that. plus, cultural solidarity is one thing, open-mindedness is one thing, but why are all the muslims dressed like assholes? you see? you dropped out of georgetown's medieval studies program before getting the degree, which was the right move, everyone thinks so, but you never did take that acting class you'd been so excited about - so how are you going to convincingly act like you don't know how much better your country is than, uh, theirs? all of them really.
worthies, the world is just too difficult to understand. did you see the part about no internet web? it's not available in alaska, indeed most of the u.s. west of the mississippi river (minus san francisco, obviously), so what are the chances they've discovered the internet in bangalore, paris, the picturesque mountains of switzerland? answer: the chances are very very small, and you can't take that kind of risk. you're not a gambler, you're an exceptionally talented and stylishly-appointed urban elite. you can't bring mohammed to the mountain because he's been put in a secret government prison on the floating magical island of west frandisco. but someone has to be brought to the mountain; the gods demand it. it just doesn't have to be you. nor do you want the mountain brought here; it's trivia night at Foster's and you can't duck out of it, not when you have to defend your "80's sitcoms"-themed record-setting title last week. someone else can babysit the mountain.
well so the alternative is to make like a grownup and stay home. but how? no american is truly cultured unless he or she has traveled the world, and yet we've shown through careful logic that travel is impermissible if not simply impossible, never mind pricy - god even if you can lifehack your tickets into a first-class upgrade from coach you're still looking at ten, maybe thirty thousand american dollars to get a seat on a giant spacegoing quantum shark-jet, and who has that kind of money lying around? other than famous personal american productivity guru/authors who spend their nights covered in locally-grown honey and rolling around in four-foot-deep piles of authors'-advance cash, "lucre" really, who has that kind of money in today's enlightened western world?
so if you can't go abroad - and you can't - you have to find a way to make HERE more like THERE, without all the "charming" local "flavor" that the emaciated non-digitally-savvy citizens of THERE think is so special precious dear to their ancestors in the dreamtime or whatever but is, when you get down to it, basically las vegas with cheaper whores and lower production values. which, sure, *awesome* in a way, but remember: no internet...
See that tab up there, at the top of the page? The one that says
Click that sucker to journey to a magical land where you can buy things I have written.
THAT IS ALL.
I wrote a book-length fiction called THE ALLWORLDS CATALOGUE. It's not a novel, not just a collection of short stories; it's a single long thing made of myriad shorter things. It's hard to describe. There are funny bits and scary ones, some sad stories, Weird stories, a passage about a spaceship that's also a fraternity, a very old thing I wrote for (not quite about) my hometown, a very new thing I wrote for someone else's hometown. Much is made of the Weave, whatever (you decide) that is.
Paperback edition here, Kindle edition (and Amazon distribution) coming shortly. That makes three books of mine you can now buy and be distinctly over/under/merely whelmed by! (That's a lot of LaTeX to be crunching. Aaaaaah self-publishing, you do please me.)
Allworlds took a lot out of me -- more than the Phish book, unsurprisingly, though that one's surprisingly close to the bone -- and I'm proud of it. If you've liked anything on this blog, I'm sure something in Allworlds will speak to you. (Small pieces of it ran here over the years, though they make up a small percentage of the book.)
Give it a read if you're so inclined, and lemme know what you think; if you like it, pass it on.
Andrew Sullivan reminds me, helpfully, of one of the present derangements on the American Right:
And if Obama wins...[t]here might even be a crack in the cognitive dissonance and epistemic closure across the right. I mean: the central issue in this campaign is Benghazi, remember?
I hadn't remembered, thanks, and was glad to be temporarily rid of the knowledge that for a shocking number of American voters the assault on the American embassy in Benghazi is the center of a lurid conspiracy theory in which that disagreeable young Negro Obama is personally responsible for the death of blah blah blah.
The central issue in every national election for the rest of my life should be climate change. It won't. We are doomed, my friends.
I just left a comment on a post at TNC's place, and thought it might be worth sharing here.
Aah -- this is about mistaking reading knowledge for fluency.
There's a level of intellectual sophistication that allows you to read popular or semi-technical writing -- e.g. 538 -- but doesn't actually equip you to talk back to what you're reading. It's like the 'reading knowledge' of a 2nd/3rd language that a lot of Comp Lit grad students acquire. Many, many of Silver's pundit-critics have that level of knowledge and not a drop more. They can't take part in the conversation because it's two semesters beyond their last math class, but they can follow it juuuuust enough to catch the implications for their own status.
Those folks -- and in many subjects I'm one of them -- just hate actual experts, because they're in a position of uncomfortable passivity in the face of expertise. They can't ignore expert discourse (just as acquiring literacy makes it generally impossible to see text as drawings anymore) but they can't quite keep up; at least full-on ignorance would let them ignore the noise entirely.
Pseuds know they're being talked about but can't do anything about it. That's a rough position to be in.
Related thesis: every teenager is forced to go through this shit (old enough to be labour, too young to be taken seriously; old enough to want sex, too young to be trusted w/r/t sex!) and comes out resenting adults partly for this exact reason.
So what's left? Dissing Silver for being a smart gay dude who knows more about baseball and politics than they (and I) do. Lame but not unexpected.
I'd note, by the way, that The Atlantic's core audience is precisely the demographic I'm talking about -- 'intellectual enthusiasts' who would never in this world read the primary literature that the Atlantic's writers lightly gloss for bite-sized consumption, but are addicted to the false idea that they could do so if only they had a little more time to spare between games of Angry Birds.
Just a reminder (if one is needed) that you should vote next week if you can. We've actually got a crucial statewide election going on here in Massachusetts -- Warren/Brown for the Senate seat that Martha Coakley pissed away a couple of years ago -- and we're lucky to have two reasonable candidates running. Brown has proven himself a principled man, or else an extraordinarily effective panderer to MA liberals (and business shill, duh), and Warren is a genuine firebreathing liberal crusader (and warmonger, but who's counting?). But I can't even consider voting for Brown (again? I know I didn't vote for goddamn Coakley) because control of the Senate is up for grabs. The stats boys say the Democrats have it locked up, but there's no taking chances.
SO!! American readers, please go vote on Tuesday. Don't let The Thick of It and In the Loop dissuade you.
I've been watching LOST Season Six special features (I know, I know) and getting nauseated by both the self-congratulatory awfulness and the just...plain...awfulness. Lost wasn't about anything at all, in the end; it was a roller coaster that disappeared when you got off it, along with your memories of it. Its ending was contemptible trash. This sale is a nice opportunity to step back and remember how deep Whedon's first TV show was -- deeply felt and brutally honest about actual human beings. For all its failings (e.g. the rickety 7th season, or Whedon's tendency to moralize about drugs, which he got over with Dollhouse if memory serves) Buffy was totally devoted to the shared/inner lives of its characters. It was about people, just people, and Whedon succeeded in making a show with an honest-to-god message that stayed true to its stated ideals all the way through.
Lindelof and Cuse dropped the ball early (then split their pants scrambling to pick it up). Joss Whedon's TV career has gone from strength to strength, even in the deeply problematic Dollhouse. If you haven't seen this show, please do. Without Buffy (plus Twin Peaks and The X-Files and The Simpsons and Seinfeld) there is no Lost -- nice thought -- but there's also no Most_of_Geeky_TV either. So much TV storytelling takes Whedon's work as a template, but few shows can touch his best work. For Christ's sake just watch the show already.
I've only heard Eminem's 'My Name Is' two or three times. I've heard Labi Siffre's 'I Got the...' more often in the last hour. Siffre's tune (off his 1975 album Remember My Song) is the source of the Enimen/Dre track's hedonic guitar/Rhodes bounce. And it's a damn sight better than 'My Name Is.'
Have a listen.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning. But I will not hold the bridle while he clinches the girth. And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up. Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran. With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp. I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll. I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends nor of my enemies either. Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man’s door. Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death? Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.--Edna St Vincent Millay, 'Conscientious Objector'
The Denver Hood is a classic, building from silkspun hush to roaring primary colours by way of Trey's bravura lead guitar work. In its cloudy sonics and simple lullaby-like melodic lines this Hood prefigures the sculptural Philly version from early December, and shares DNA with several beloved 1997 jams, from the Vegas Stash to the Darien Hood, not to mention the huge Timber jam that kicked off the second set just 40 minutes prior. It's a shapely performance: the band sets out to do one difficult thing and does it, seemingly without effort.
Trey is prone to what some fans cheekily call 'TreyDHD,' a tendency to try and grab all his ideas at once and squeeze them into a set or show or even a single solo, which can make for jarring discontinuities or frustration for fans looking for smooth continuity first and foremost. He's always done well with Hood, which opens out into a languorous I-V-IV space and stays there a good long time; still, in his dual role as ornamental lead and architectural rhythm player, he doesn't always arrive at the final huzzah in one piece. But Trey achieved an impressive degree of relaxed focus in late 1997, stepping back from his lead role for long stretches and letting the band's democratic improvisations take solid shape before moving into his customary topside melodic position.
In the Denver Hood Trey strikes a delicate balance: his guitar curlicues have a singsong clarity and simplicity even as they template the band's ensemble movement. All four players achieve real lightness here, particularly Page, who builds an electrifying dissonance around Trey's single-note thrusts late in the jam, only to bring the whole thing crashing joyfully down at the close. Dig Page's I-IIb pushback against Trey's glowing major thirds in the seventeenth minute, and his surefooted sidestep into cheeky blues a moment later -- Page is doing an enormous amount of work here within a 'simple' three-chord jam! But Trey has the conn here: pushing the whole band into a martial build in the fifteenth minute, filling the upper register with fog to shift rhythmic focus to Mike and Fish, ascending (over three or four minutes!) the long major chord thirdwise to provide a series of plateaus for collective gathering and upward explosion. Mike and Fish empathetically mirror Trey's combination of upper-atmospheric haze and precise rhythmic punctuation, so that his lead guitar line never seems like a solo, but rather a element of some ongoing evolutionary process, a sand castle emerging from the shore as a topographic inevitability, a principle, instead of (say) clumped bucketfuls stacking, stuck together...
Of course they close with Izabella, which isn't anticlimactic so much as much (?) of a muchness, and maybe giving away the game entirely: I mean, in those days sometimes the fifth man was James Brown, invisible onstage, but for a lot of November and December 1997 it was Jimi Hendrix, as the phrase 'upper-atmospheric haze and precise rhythmic punctuation' shoulda made clear, *duh*. A soaring solar Hood doesn't really need another tune to follow it, but if the set isn't yet spent, it makes sense to build on Hood's governing sonic principle. The Hendrix cover is just an alembic -- it purifies a key ingredient...