Monday, September 29, 2008

Gossip Girl Liveblogging 2.5

Ah, an evening of Blair and the gang, accompanied by a tofu hoagie for dinner. What's in store for this evening, I wonder?

8:01 For a moment I thought I was watching Project Runway. By the way, ever notice that Blair's mother is played by the poor man's version of Sally Field?

8:05 Mapplethorpe is the artist who "took pictures of naked guys"? I guess you could say that. Does this mean that Lily is modeled after Patti Smith?

8:06 FYI, the Yale English Department has nothing to do with admissions at Yale.

8:10 Doretta, Blair's maid, is kind of coming into her own this season. I'm hoping for a secret romance between her and Dan. That's out of your comfort zone, Danny boy.

8:14 This is not going to end well, Danny Boy. FYI.

8:15 How does Rufus know Blair?

8:20 I know they are Chuck's thing, but I've dated twins, and they're nothing special. Even once you marry them.

8:23 Poor little J. Wait, did that sign say "Constance Gillard School for Girls?" Does Jenny go to a different school or something, because whatever school they went to is as coed as they come.

8:28 Little J! What are you doing! Get back to school!

8:30 I want to take this commercial break to clear up a little misconception from last episode. It has been widely noted that Blair rejected some poor little girl because her family summered in the Adirondacks, rather than the Hamptons. This is actually a misconception on the show's part, one repeated in many other television shows about wealthy New York, like Sex in the City and Real Housewives of New York. It is true that the Hamptons is currently the most important summer spot for New Yorkers. However, to owe allegiance to the Adirondacks is actually a sign of old money, rather than the Hamptons, which unlike the Adirondacks is more forgiving of new money. Just FYI.

8:38 Oh Rufus. Poor Rufus. Little J about to be expelled, and Dan in jail. Awesome.

8:39 Are we surprised that Mr. Bass destroyed the Mapplethorpe? We are not.

8:41 I get a little tired of Shakespearean plotlines that depend upon miscommunication and misread intentions. You know? It would take Little J about five seconds to say something along the lines of, "Blair sabotaged your show, Eleanor."

8:50 Why is it that criminals in shows like Gossip Girl, like Dan's cellmates, always look like bad motorcycle villains from the 1950s?

8:52 If I were Rufus, I would send Little J to Miss Porter's. It's hard to get in trouble in Farmington.

8:56 Maybe my dissertation would be much better if I spent a night in jail. No?

9:00 Ooh, college weekend next episode! wheee!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Good Steps

I've complained before about how The Nation was backing off on music criticism after the death of their longtime critic, Edward Said. So I just wanted to note that the trend seems to be reversing: in recent weeks we've had David Schiff reviewing a production of Peter Grimes, and the ever-fabulous Daphne Brooks writing a smart piece on Amy Winehouse. Keep up the good work! Now you just need to hire a permanent music critic, and you will be back in my good graces.

Incidentally, do you subscribe to The Nation? If you are a leftie like me, you should. I'm probably biased by my romantic attachment to print culture (and cheap newsprint at that) but I think it's important to support what few institutions for intelligent left political discourse we have left. The Nation can often be supremely annoying, but it's easy enough to skip over Alexander Cockburn's weekly nostalgia for the Cold War in favor of Patricia Williams, Katha Pollit, and one of the best book review sections in the business. Plus, Calvin Trillin, deadline poet! And it's cheap: $32 for a year's subscription.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bailing out what?

"A solution the markets will have confidence in."
--Sen. Judd Gregg (R, NH)

What does it say about capitalism that "the market" is referred to as a person, with thoughts and feelings?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Searching

You know what is on my technological wish list? I wish that if I owned a copy of, say, The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, I could go online to somewhere like GoogleBooks or Amazon, and easily search the entire book, rather than just a limited preview. You know, like there could be some way to prove you owned the book, and weren't trying to steal it or anything, and that you just needed to search it because you are bad at notetaking.

The end.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Gossip Girl Liveblogging: 2.4

I'm late, I'm late! Getting to Gossip Girl on time is difficult these days, since I work until 7pm on Mondays, and the stupid veterinarian I work for takes forever to finish up. I've missed ten minutes; let's see if I can catch up.

8:12 What is Blair wearing?!! Did Tim Burton direct this episode?

8:15 There is something very weirdly fake about the way the characters in Gossip Girl use their cell phones to take pictures. Ever notice that? It's as if they are all discovering the camera phone feature for the first time, and are trying desperately to look nonchalant about how cool it is.

8:16: Lily, Lily, Lily. I forgot all about you.

8:17 If I wanted to leave a message for someone who had a butler, I think in real life that butler would probably take the envelope from me by hand. I don't think the butler would let me lift up a priceless crystal ashtray and use it as a paperweight for a message, and then let me go exploring in the house. Especially if the butler knew the mistress of the house was mistressing her step-son in the next room.

8:21 Such is the state of my life right now that during the commercial breaks, I am reading an article on Machaut I assigned to my students for tomorrow. It is possibly the most boring article on Machaut ever written, I am realizing. Although, as a bit of unsolicted advice for Josh Schwartz, the "Kyrie" from the Messe de Nostre Dame would work much better as a soundtrack than all this annoying emo. The music in this series has really gone downhill, don't you think?

8:27 Blair is much prettier when she is crying, no?

8:29 I am really, really looking forward to Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist.

8:32 Don't do it Vanessa! If you start confiding in Jenny, clearly it will be on Page Six tomorrow.

8:34 Serena can really be amazing some time. How is it that Dan is such a weenie?

8:35 This one's for Aimee, who is reading this liveblog but not watching. Blair speaking to her Lordly boyfriend: "Isn't it awkward juggling two women, James? Me and Catherine--or do you prefer, 'Mom.'" See what you are missing?

8:45 Wait, I didn't catch that--what did Chuck put in the martini glass? And why does Chuck carry a mysterious blue goo around with him all times?

8:47 Lily and Rufus nostalgically blurring the lines of their friendship? Dan and Serena misunderstanding each other? What next; Blair and Nate not having sex? Maybe the producers are making up for the absurdity of the Duchess story line by repeating every story line from last season.

8:54 Oh that's right Nate, you've never kept secrets from close friends in order to "help" them.

8:59 Well, that episode was a bit...tumultuous. As I often say, I prefer GG when it avoids histrionics and just enjoys the characters and the lush set dressing of the Upper East Side. Too much plot gets a tiring. Oh, and what's with the "promotional consideration" ads for music heard in the episode? Dear god. Although, as a bit of personal trivia, I went to college with the guys in MGMT.

Well, good night and good luck. I need to turn off the TV before One Tree Hill comes on. It might come as a surprise, but I do have some standards.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Can We?

A preview of Obama National Headquarters, the night before Election Day, by way of Les Mis. My first time watching this I was hoping desperately that the real Obama staff had made this video, but alas, it's just some improv troupe. Whatevs, it's great. Hat tip to my friend Ross.

You know, it occurs to me that the Obama campaign owes a serious debt to Yoko Ono. The campaign has tried very hard to make its supporters and volunteers feel empowered in the political process. Drawing techniques from MoveOn, we are encouraged to host phonebanking parties, to create our own discussion groups, to make our own signs. When McCain attacks something about Obama or the Democrats, often we'll get an email from the campaign (or from MoveOn, or from DFA) telling us, "McCain is attacking YOU." It's very effective, I think. But I just want to point out that Yoko Ono and John Lennon have been pushing this line for a long time! The whole point of the "War is Over (If You Want It)" campaign was to inspire people to look at their own lives as a source for political change--War is over, the sign reads, the only fine print being the parenthetical statement that you have to truly want it to be over. Yes, you. If you want something, you can make it happen as long as you believe yourself capable. See, the avant-garde is good for something:

I used to be slightly annoyed by Yoko's signs, which she repurposed in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003 in the form of a billboard in NYC. After all, if you were paying attention to the size and intensity of anti-war demonstrations back then, you'd know that people were wanting war to be over very dearly! Heck, my formerly-Republican grandmother went to a peace rally back then, and still we went to war. Sometimes war happens despite people not wanting it, and that's because in our country, power is carefully circulated in such a way so that a few people can still more or less do what they want.

But you know, even though I somewhat doubt the sincerity of the Obama campaign when it comes to empowering his supporters, I'm finding it more and more effective as a political style. I'm not sure it will last beyond this campaign; it's hard to imagine millions of us mobilizing to support President Obama when it comes to, say, mundane details like balancing the budget. The very black-and-white (so to speak) nature of this election, where we really have a chance to turn the country around from many, many decades of conservative and neo-liberal rule, is ready-made for inspiring populist passion, which in turn makes us feel empowered. But even if this is all just cynical manipulation that dies away come February 2009, you know what? Totally worth it.

Of course, if it doesn't work, then off with David Axelrod's head!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sonatas and Interludes

My observant uncle-in-law noticed that over at allmusic, the "Album of the Day" is a recording by Julie Steinberg of John Cage's 1948 masterpiece Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano by Julie Steinberg. This is one of favorite pieces of all time, and it's great to see the publicity for it. The reviewer notes, as just about ever reviewer of a recording of the piece (including myself) also notes, that the Sonatas are the closest Cage came to writing a piece of music that might be thought of as a standard in modern piano repertory. There are many lovely recordings of this piece available, although it is also worth mentioning that if it is often recorded, it is not played live very often, thanks to the complexity of its preparations. (Click to enlarge)

In the classic Cage narrative, the complexity of those preparations lead to a certain crisis on his part. As you can tell from the table, he was very concerned with making sure pianists were using the right sounds when playing this piece. Thus, measurements and objects are written down in very exacting terms, so that the sound created is precisely what Cage imagined. As you can probably guess, this ended up being impossible. Pianos and pianists are wildly divergent, and it proved impossible to have a consistent palate of sounds. By way of example, I've created a little montage of the first four measures of Sonata I, as played by six different pianists:

The first is by Maro Ajemian, recorded in 1951 and closely supervised by Cage himself. The other five are more recent recordings by, respectively, Margaret Leng Tan, Boris Berman, John Tilbury, Phillipp Vandre, and Steinberg. (The last is the one reviewed by allmusic; the snippet posted online is mm. 2-4 and frankly, four copies of this piece is enough for me, I'm not buying a new one.)

Obviously, not only do these five preparations sound pretty different, each performer takes a different approach to the score. Tan's version should theoretically sound the most like Ajemian's since she worked closely with Cage and not only used the same kind of piano, but used Cage's own personal box of preparing objects, Her recording, however could not be more different than everyone else. Personality matters, too. Ultimately, these kinds of differences were what lead Cage to chance techniques. Realizing that he couldn't control every aspect of a performance, he gave up control all together. (Or at least, according to his own mythology that's what happened.)

There is tons to be said about the Sonatas. Cage poured every ounce of his little heart into these brilliant little pieces, and it reflects perfectly many of his late 1940s obsessions with rhythmic structures, timbral composition, the influence of Hindu and Zen philosophies as well as his recent arrival on the New York avant-garde scene. Less often noted is the work's neo-classicism. Why, exactly, would an avant-gardist like Cage being writing a piece of music called Sonatas and Interludes? It wasn't an isolated example either, see as well his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, Suite for Toy Piano, and String Quartet. This is, I would argue, an inheritance from Satie (by way of Virgil Thomson) that gets ignored by most Cage scholars. At the same time he was composing the Sonatas he was also immersing himself in the Greek-inspired music of Satie, like The Ruse of Medusa and most especially Socrate. For all of the influence of Coomaraswamy and Suzuki and whatnot, there was a big part of Cage that was a French modernist.

I myself prefer the recordings that emphasize the tiny, precise, almost jewel-like nature of these little works. My favorite is actually Boris Berman's recording on Naxos. He takes great liberties with the score--the pedal markings would indicate that Margaret Leng Tan's long sustained hold of the opening fanfare is technically correct--but it's an aesthetic I greatly prefer.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Scholarship Made Pretty

I've been working on a fun article recently. Based on a paper I gave at SAM and a few sundry other locations, it takes as its object of study an argument John Cage had in the late 1940s, with the writer Paul Goodman. It's unclear when or where the argument took place, but the subject was the relative merits of Satie and Beethoven. It was sufficiently antagonistic that the two never really spoke again. It seems like a small issue, but it strikes at the heart of lots of important issues in the post-war avant-garde.

Anyways, it's interesting stuff, I promise, but more importantly, it makes a very pretty word cloud via the fascinating web program Wordle, which I discovered thanks to the livejournal pages of a bunch of my friends.

(Sorry for no Gossip Girl liveblogging tonight, I was off at an Eagle Scout awards ceremony for my cousin. Congrats, Eric!)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Philly Music

A request for assistance: I'm requiring my students to attend and review two "classical music" concerts, broadly defined. I'm putting together a list of possible concerts, and I thought I would see if anyone out there in the ether knew of interesting concerts in the Philadelphia area this fall. Obviously I have the schedules for the mainstream performance organizations, but if you are involved in something interesting that I might not find out about through normal channels, I'd love to hear about it. Just leave a comment!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Truthiness and You

You know, truth is an interesting thing.

I've always been simultaneously amused and bemused by the Jon Stewart approach. At its best, as in this clip, he works by simply letting truths speak for themselves. Sometimes he has to fudge things a bit to make his points, but in this clip, all he really do is sit back and play a stream of clips. The points make themselves.

We on the left find this very funny. And I think we also have an inner monologue that goes something like this: "This stuff is so obvious; how could anyone possibly not see what is wrong with the Republican party?!!" I know I have thought things like that. Even when you know you're being condescending, it's hard not to think that the other side are complete idiots. It's frustrating, of course, and you get shows like Stewart's that seem to think that if only the truth could be revealed to the masses, they would immediately agree with us.

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink being roughed up at the RNC convention during Palin's speech.

Of course, that's not actually the case. As J.L. Austin famously pointed out, there are some statements that are demonstrably true or false. "The sofa is on fire" is either true or false. But then there are statements that are not measured in terms of falsity, but rather in their performative effect. By this, Austin means that statements can actually cause things to happen, and are measured by this. His most clear example is a minister performing a wedding. When the minister says, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," that statement is neither true nor false. Rather, because of legislation giving the minister certain authorities, the two people are bound by those words into a legal contract. We measure the statement "I now pronounce you husband and wife" not by its truth, but by whether or not it works. If, for example, it occurred without the proper authorization ("I do") of the couple, the minister's statement would not have the desired effect.

Anyways. That's the brief (really brief) version of what we academic types call "performativity." This is exactly the world of political discourse, which is measured not in truth versus false, but in its effect. The (sad? maybe.) fact is that you can go around pointing out errors of logic in Republican positions all you want, but doing serves more as a cheerleading function for the committed. Which is fine, but ideally our goal should be change, not a sense of superiority. It's why in some ways Stephen Colbert's approach is possibly the more effective: by pretending to be a right-wing blowhard, I think he actually is much more effective at subverting Republican talking points than Stewart. We live in postmodernity, and it's best to use tools appropriate to the times.

It also means he avoids some common traps. Jon Stewart and others on the left have this bad habit of often descending into very unpleasant political rhetoric when they think they can seize a chance to introduce more truth into the world. Earlier in the show from which the above excerpt comes, Stewart had another bit in which he tore into the hypocrisy of Republicans, and had a little skit in which the Stewart news team camped out in the men's room at the Republican. Pointing out hypocrisy is always a good time, and it could have been a funny skit, but it quickly became apparent that the reason we were supposed to laugh at the Republicans was not because they were hypocritical, but because they liked gay sex at all. "Gross," they seem to say, "men who like men!"

There is a lot of that on the left. Back when the Larry Craig and Mark Foley scandals were in full swing, there was a lot of homophobic discourse on the left. Just like during the primary there was a ton of sexist discourse on Daily Kos and a lot of racist stuff on MyDD. And you know what? There has been a lot of sexist attacks on Palin. Just because Republicans are crying foul for once doesn't mean it's not true. So you know what, my comrades? Cut it out. The problem with Palin is not that she is a mother, or a woman, or that she is "inexperienced," whatever that code word might mean to you. The only problem with Palin is that her beliefs in things like abortion, the environment, education, gay rights, national defense, and just about every thing, would take this country down the wrong track. I think that's enough.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Back to Teaching

After a sedentary year of fellowship, it's nice to be back in the swing of teaching. (Side note: using the word "fellowship," normally defined as the "companionship of individuals in a congenial atmosphere," to describe an academic year spent mostly at home in pajamas is supremely ironic.) Classes start tomorrow, and I've enjoyed a happy day trucking around campus finding the bookstore, learning to operate the air conditioner in the fourth-story walk-up attic office I share with three other adjuncts, and abusing my faculty parking privilege.

I've studied and/or taught at a pretty full range of educational institutions now: a small liberal arts college, a small private university, a gigantic public university. Widener is definitely the hardest to pin down. It has an interesting history, having been founded in 1821 as the Pennsylvania Military College, and only became a comprehensive coed university in 1972. The main campus, where I teach, is in Chester, but they have satellite campuses in Harrisburg and Wilmington, Delaware (where my colleague Joe Biden teaches in the law school). I have no idea what the students will be like. Presumably the quick-witted amongst them will find this blog soon; greetings, young music historians!

One thing I will tell you teaching on the campus of a former military school--the conceptual line between an academic quadrangle and a parade ground is disturbingly unclear.

Off to meet a tech guy who is going to show me how to plug an iPod into my classroom. Some of you might appreciate that tomorrow I am going to teach the fundamentals of listening critically to music by way of Katy Perry.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Gossip Girl Liveblogging: Season 2


8:03 Who's this chippy making out with Chace?

8:06 Well well well Lonely Boy indeed!

8:10 Commercial break. It's time to admit that I'm a little nervous for this season. I'm sensing...caricature. I think we all know what happened to The OC after the first season. Please don't do that to us again, Josh Schwartz. Step slowly away from the bad emo band cross-promotion, and just develop the characters. Carefully and deliberately. My favorite part of the season was the luxuriously long plateau that was Dan and Serena's relationship. But at the rate we're going now, Serena's going to die in a lesbian car crash halfway through the season.

8:15 Ugh. The repartee is dragging, isn't it.

8:20 I do have some experience with with this social set, and I can tell you that there are indeed high school boys who dress like Chuck Bass. Which is horrifying, I know.

8:28 Did Blair just say..."Mother Chucker"?

8:38 Yawn.

8:39 Wait--did I just see a black person? I think that's a first. It was an extra, but still.

8:40 Yawn.

8:50 I don't want to be too mushy, but I love Dan and Serena together.

8:51 Grandma creeps me out though.

8:53 I can't decide which is more fake about James, his British accent or his American accent.

8:58 Interesting theory on solving writer's block. Insert dissertation-writing joke here.

9:00 Okay, I'm back on the bandwagon. Slow beginning, slower middle, but it got good there at the end. Maybe there is hope for the new season.