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Posts Tagged ‘music’

Staff Picks: Pop, Rock, and Bear Hock

August 29, 2014 | by

From Barry Guy's Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

From Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez

In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein

That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

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Telling It Like It Is in Times Square, and Other News

August 29, 2014 | by

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Alfredo Jaar, A Logo for America, 1987/2014. Photo: Ka-Man Tse for Times Square Arts

  • Coming this fall: a host of new books about football. But do they hold up against the venerable backlist of football literature?
  • Today in trepidatious grammatical hairsplitting: whoever versus whomever, and all the complications thereof.
  • On syllabus bloat: “Today’s college syllabus is longer than many of the assignments it allegedly lists … The syllabus now merely exists to ensure a ‘customer experience’ wherein if every box is adequately checked, the end result—a desired grade—is inevitable and demanded, learning be damned.”
  • Every night between 11:57 and midnight, the slogan “This Is Not America” has appeared on a high-definition LED in Times Square—a message from the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar, who debuted the work in a decidedly more analog form back in 1987.
  • Science shows that listening to your favorite songs, regardless of their genre, will generate “strikingly similar brain activity patterns” of a sort that can encourage creativity.

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Lost in Music

July 24, 2014 | by

Musical mind control from Mesmer to the Satanic panic.

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A hysterical patient in a catatonic fit, supposedly caused by the huge tuning fork. Désiré Magloire Bourneville and Paul Regnard, Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (1876–1880).

To lose oneself in music is generally regarded as a good thing—an ecstatic experience, or at least an absent-minded pleasure. But despite the Eminems, Daft Punks, and Sister Sledges of the world, Western culture has often had niggling fears about letting go in that way. What if the music can make you do things? What if surrendering to it means surrendering the parts of yourself that hold you back from madness, adultery, and murder? What if heavy metal sends teens on killing sprees? What if rock and roll makes girls shed their sexual inhibitions, causing a rash of nymphomania and pregnancy and the collapse of social order—or what if it can whip crowds into a malleable frenzy, leaving them the pitiful stooges of Communist or other sinister causes? What if it can be used with other forms of thought control to turn people into Manchurian Candidate–style automatons?

The fear, however implausible, that music has mysterious powers—that it can hypnotize or brainwash, making us the playthings of malign manipulators or our own dark instincts—has crept into the public discourse surprisingly often over the past two hundred years. Concerns about the medical, sexual, social, and political consequences of musical hypnosis are an essentially modern business; until the eighteenth century, trance states were often seen in a positive light, even as a way of connecting to the divine. But against the background of the internalized self-control demanded by modern urban society, trance states have been increasingly regarded as pathological symptoms—something to be explained by doctors, not priests. Read More »

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An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane

June 3, 2014 | by

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A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.

I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.

Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions. Read More »

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John Ashbery Reads “A Boy”

March 18, 2014 | by

thunder lay down in the heart

Today the composer Christopher Tignor releases a new record, Thunder Lay Down in the Heart, whose title track is a twenty-minute work for string orchestra, electronics, and drums. The composition is named after a line from John Ashbery’s 1956 poem, “A Boy,” and it begins with a haunting new recording of Ashbery reading the poem in his Chelsea apartment, which Tignor has graciously allowed us to feature here.

Tignor says:

“A Boy” rang out to me while I was writing “Thunder Lay Down in the Heart.” My song titles usually come in response to the music, and I often find myself looking through books of poetry to turn my mind on in that way. When I was a student at Bard, I studied poetry with Ashbery—he was my advisor—and when I read this poem, I responded right away to the conflict between the protagonist and the visceral narrative tension of the storm: the sound, like thunder, of falling “from shelf to shelf of someone’s rage,” the rain at night against the box cars, the inevitable flood.

It’s precisely that kind of unfolding I hoped to embody in my musical work, with its own flooded lines, dry fields of lightning, and cabbage roses. A reviewer recently described the work as its own “vast electrical disturbance.” Hard to disagree.

 

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Jewel-Toned Insides: Talking with Throwing Muses and Tanya Donelly

December 17, 2013 | by

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David Narcizo, Kristin Hersh, and Bernard Georges.

The debut album by Throwing Muses was released in 1986, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. Back then I had a friend who listened almost exclusively to artists on the British independent label 4AD, and I wanted to have musical tastes as esoteric as his. He told me that Throwing Muses—who lived in Boston, like we did—was the label’s first American signing, and I bought their record without having heard a note of it, only moments after a clerk in the Harvard Square branch of Newbury Comics slipped it into the “new releases” bin. I reasoned that since the record had come from England, and Boston was the easternmost major port in the United States, I was probably the first person in America to buy it, and for a long time I went around saying this. At that time my friends and I played a lot of I-heard-them-before-you-did—I saw R.E.M. in a tiny club with only fifteen other people before they were famous—and naturally there was a little of this involved, but my proprietary feelings toward Throwing Muses were more personal. I had finally found the music that was meant for me. Read More »

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