Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pre-established forms and U

Hi all--I said to myself I wasn't going to post to this blog while I had things to do, but my two works and my lecture notes for workshop all seem to be tangled up in this topic and I figured the blog might be a good dress rehearsal--so consider this the rough draft of what I'll be consumed with this week.

Forms all have a history and all have a great deal of work they can do for us. I think it significant that many cultures used specific patterns and forms as wards against evil spirits, who got caught up in them, in the great enjoyment of recognizing their recurrence, their mathematics. The Dutch had Hex signs that they placed on barns. Eastern cultures clap repeatedly. A labyrinth held the Minotaur at bay, though it's now been said that constantly turning right will get one out of even the toughest of mazes. Music soothes the savage beast. Music convinced those in charge of the Underworld to give Orpheus' wife back, under certain conditions.

If we hear beforehand that something is a limerick, we already can hum the tune of the piece, already know it's likely bawdy, and all know the rhyme scheme, the syllabics. Pop songs all tend to have that tried and true format of Verse/ Chorus/ Verse/ Chorus/ Bridge/ Verse/ Chorus/ Fadeout. Doing something that works against that while at the same time acts against it can cause tension on its own that will add interest to a piece. Sting's Fortress around Your Heart has no bridge in its formal structure, yet its lyrics repeatedly mention one--the lack of one, the need to build one. John Berryman's Dream Songs have a sonnet-like structure and hint at a sonnet-like rhyme scheme, but often haven't got it. In doing so, we read it with the background of what sonnets do (talk of problems in love and war, with more lines to discuss the problem than discuss the solution, as well as have a major turn somewhere in the second half). Pieces of music (or literature, or cinema) often end as they begin, forming patterns within larger patterns that invite further study, catch the ear or eye. Architecture often serves this funtion as well--the repeated elements of the facade, the use of established Greek orders in older architecture (Doric at bottom, then Ionic, then Corinthian at top). Using forms such as these in various works of art adds the weight of such forms, drags the long shadow of them behind the movement of your piece. The trick is in how to do this effectively--to one side of the thin line and the piece is simply an imitation, on the other the reference makes no sense and seems to add a sham depth to a piece that doesn't deserve it.
Berryman often does well at this with his Dream Songs, Berrigan as well, less often, with his sonnet sequence. Alfred Schnittke made it the mainstay of the majority of his life of composing, with a purposeful juxtaposition of the Classical with the Modern. There is the old adage of needing to know the rules before one breaks them, and it tends to hold true. There are those who seem to know the rules innately and act against them. One of my sister's children learned the music and form of language (the cadence of it, the notes it should play, the sounds it should assume) without being able to form a word of English at all. This fascinated me; his ability to communicate using only the music of language along with gesture. Forms do their work. The great learning, however, comes from what one can bring to the form, or, alternately, in billiard terms, bankshot off it to form a new trajectory.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

School in Earnest

The semester has officially started. By that I mean the trailer-load of tasks has been dumped on my shivering person--this weekend I need to cobble together two more poems, grade 20 papers, do three weeks of laundry as I've not been home in forever, pay the bills, work on lesson plans, get stuff submitted to journals, do further research for internships over the summer, read a novel by Tuesday, read lit crit, and comment on my undergrad student poems for my Monday conferences with everyone. I also need to work on revising my own stuff and get that prepared for Literary Awards in the next couple of weeks. Considering that I need to drive back to Lafayette tomorrow afternoon, that leaves a pretty jam packed 24 hours. I'll try to keep up on the blog, but...

In other news, the department is all up in arms over an email thoughtlessly sent by a grad student and things have been on edge for over a week now. If it illustrates anything, it shows the great social responsibility of everyone not to be a dumbass. Being a dumbass only ends up making other people upset and increases the chances of others being dumbasses and prolonging the pain and bother for everyone. Not being a dumbass is harder work than in sounds and I've been one on quite a few occasions. I've learned, however, what further issues that causes and am trying to avoid such incidents as much as possible. Sending out inflammatory, racially, or religiously insensitive emails is being a dumbass. Responding in an inflammatory fashion to such emails that are willfully misinformed is also being a dumbass and does no one any favors. So, in closing, remember your social responsibility, folks...lets all make it one of those January resolutions and let's try to make it stick.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mela Meierhans

Mela MEIERHANS (b. 1961)
Differance I for large orchestra (2000) [7:30]*

Tunnel II (2002) [22:11]**

prelude and echo (2003) [10:47]ɚ

Narziss und Echo for solo clarinet (2004) [11:14] ɸ

Essays I-V for piano and voice (2005) [14:30] ±
Basel Sinfonietta/Jürg Wyttenbach*


From the first steam-engine-like chugs of Differance I, listeners will know that this disc will not be filled with music that caters to the toe-tapping hummability of Pops programmes. This release, part of a series of “portrait” discs from Musiques-Suisses, spotlights the recent (the oldest piece on this disc is only seven years old) output of Mela Meierhans, who currently has five discs released. Born in 1961 in Lucerne, Meierhans has quite a few compositions to her credit. According to her website, she is currently “Artist in Residence” in Cairo, researching the next instalment of her Jenseits trilogy.

Differance I is referred to by the composer as a “consultative improvisation” for large orchestra, to be performed in the dark. Meierhans states in the excellent liner notes that the piece is intended to demonstrate a “kind of indecision; something between active and passive.” A piece filled with tension, Differance I does have this element about it, but not at all in the strange state of suspension that Morton Feldman’s music has. Here we have a greater sense of unease and even malice.

Differance I, therefore, is a perfect lead-in to Tunnel II, a work for chamber ensemble, pre-recorded tape, and soprano. The piece is based on a short story by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in which the characters are all on a train that stalls in a tunnel that is bored through one of Switzerland’s many mountains. I won’t give away any details of the story (I’ll say the trip doesn’t end well), but Tunnel II is downright harrowing, sure to give cause for pondering well after the piece ends. The work demands a great deal of flexibility and precision from the ensemble, which Ensemble Æquatour (themselves the subject of one of Musiques-Suisses’ portrait series) and Sylvia Nopper show themselves to great effect here.

The tone lightens up somewhat with prelude and echo, a work based on five poems in English by Anne Blonstein, a Basel-based poet. Unlike Tunnel II, the vocalist speaks in undertones or in non-words. Especially striking is a sombre, ethereal section seven minutes into the piece, sounding like one of the more pensive moments from Brian Eno’s Shutov Assembly. Throughout the piece the poems themselves are minced into bits of sound. The full texts are included, perhaps to give the listener a sense of what the music used as a springboard. One particularly telling phrase of Blonstein’s is in the last section: what words will do in the future/ they wrote. a venue in risk. “Safe” music this isn’t.

Narziss und Echo is described by Meierhans as a piece in which there is yearning for Identity. In both mythical characters we have different sides of the same coin; one who is completely absorbed in the self and the other only able to find expression in the utterances of others. Of the pieces included on this disc, this could be considered the one most conventionally “accessible,” though it departs quite readily from any standard tonality. With an extremely wide array of voicings, microtonalities, and glissandi, this is quite a virtuoso piece, though not in the typical sense of the word as far as empty flash is concerned. Franco Tosi gives an electrifying performance.

Overall, this disc’s recording aesthetic, as well as its exceedingly well-thought-out liner notes, shows Musiques-Suisses has kept its interest in presenting Swiss artists in a high-quality format. This music isn’t for everybody, and even for those who have interest in avant-garde music, this might not be everyday listening. This disc, as well as other discs in this series, is certainly worth looking into for extremely compelling performances.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mistake Cookies

Yesterday, in the metropolis of York, Nebraska, we had dinner with my aunt Andrea, husband Drew and their ten children, and afterwards, we had something I've not tasted in well over a decade. We call them mistake cookies, a sort of refrigerator cookie discovered in the same way that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. My grandmother was what many might euphemistically refer to as an "experimental" cook. The results of which look a bit disturbingly like a frozen beef patty, but are nothing less than cocoa, oatmeal, margarine-soaked (out here many still call it oleo) goodness.

I'll soon attempt to link a vid--something to approximate typical family proceedings in their own environment. I've no idea how to edit, so here, for good or ill, will be the raw footage for your potential enjoyment. I talk slowly in comparison to most of my relatives, so beware.

Nebraskan Nonagenarians

I've been here in the frozen tundra of Central Nebraska (subzero temps the past two nights) to celebrate my grandfather's 90th birthday. Seward is a sleepier city in wintertime, with few pedestrians (understandable considering the temperatures), the college students here busy with classes and across town. Not much has changed--the Hinky Dinky grocery store is now the much more blandly-named Sun Mart, the courthouse still presides over the central square, the bandshell rests under snow.

The day before yesterday, Uncle John said he had an extra ticket to some concert or other in Lincoln and asked if I'd be interested in going. He said it was a Russian ensemble. It turned out to be none other than the Royal Philharmonic, on tour, with the illustrious Pinchas Zuckerman conducting. Surprisingly, he played both roles of conductor and soloist for the Max Bruch Violin Concerto No. 2, not often played, and certainly not often performed conducted by the soloist. A really great performance, the only quibble I had was that the last movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th symphony was overplayed. I'll admit that, even though I knew what was coming I about lost my water when the big first chord hit. The evening was great, having spent time at dinner beforehand with the concert organist Charles Orr and his lovely wife Connie, as well as with the Owner of a local bank Steve Wake and his wife, who is one of those special people that is actually able to teach middle school kids. I've had to do that only once, and not for a long time, and I was completely exhausted. Give me college students and I'll be OK, but middle school kids act like those pictorial examples of what happens to water molecules when water comes to a boil. The Wakes and the Orrs were great conversation--we chatted about the quality of new music (as well as the quantity) composed for pipe organ (evidently both are quite good), arts education in public schools, and what tortures I might be able to put my Freshmen through upon my return to campus this week.

I'm about out of time, as we are heading for the big 90-year shindig in just a bit. More later. I've been taking notes...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Arctic Archaeology

Found while cleaning out my icebox:

Quart of skim milk, marked "Best by Nov. 16 2007"

Squeeze bottle of mustard, marked "Best by Dec. 18, 2005"

2 Ziploc baggies containing egg-sized hailstones from a storm in April 2006

Baking-soda refrigerator deodorizer in shape of an eskimo, owned by previous house owner, who died sometime in 2000-2001

A paintbrush, in ziploc baggie, with lighter ochre paint on it, which means it was used in painting the garage. That would mean it's been in my refrigerator for three years.

--Dinner, anyone?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Day 1 Scorecard

Well, currently the lead is being held by my evil, inconsiderate, and likely methed-up upstairs neighbor, who has been getting gradually more erratic over the course of the school year. I spent last night trying to sleep while she and her various enablers did horse-laps up and down the stairs right along my apartment wall. And of course she needs to slam the door each and every time to make sure it is in fact securely fastened. All this nonsense finally stopped sometime around 4:15, leaving me an hour and 45 minutes to sleep before my 7:30 class. I awoke with a start as soon as I realized I was dreaming about Mitt Romney--not due to any political dislikes, but due to the fact that, with NPR on the clock radio, if I'm dreaming of current events, that means my alarm is going. I'd managed to sleep through almost half an hour of radio news.

The freak weather we are having (65 is the projected high, but I believe it will be warmer, as it was 63 before sunrise) has Heavilon Hall feeling like a bad basement with a heating problem. The lack of sleep and interior atmospheric conditions have me feeling like I've been brushed with oil and salt. At least the syllabi are in the can, the packet is ready for purchase at Copymat, and the books have all been ordered. Things seem to be going well so far. I just need to get through today without succumbing to a nap. And if that chick starts slamming doors again, I just may have to ask her to choose a different time to do her horse-laps. Nicely, of course.

Friday, January 04, 2008

...and furthermore....

In my meanderings, I've found that someone has already remixed the video I included in a previous makes a rather interesting snippet of visual art, perhaps, though it does end prematurely.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Final Nail

Well, it finally happened. Mention has been made on the blogwaves about Vista's issues, including, evidently, that it ain't all that stable. Therein is the start of my story. On top of all the crap I'm having to go through because of Vista (the typing up of my student packet being the biggest pain in my ass), I get to the point where I've typed all I'm gonna type for the Poetry section of class--upwards of 50 pages of stuff--and saving it as I go. It was a poem by Heather McHugh, and the poem ended with "poetry is what/ he thought but did not say." I click "Save." The computer comes back at me with a window saying "Cannot Access File." Earth to Computer, Earth to Computer, you've not only accessed the file before, you're in it now. I've been typing on it for the past three days straight. My only option is to click the OK button. Vista is big on notification windows that pretty much just "check in" to see if you're awake to click the OK button. I click the OK button. Another notification window briefly flashes on my screen before vanishing. I could only catch a bit of a file name that had "recover" in it. Not good, I think, not good. As soon as the window vanishes, I see my 50+ page document vanish from the screen. Crap. I go back to my drive to open it up again. Windows has deleted it from my drive. As in: Gone. As in: not found on any drive. I feel all the blood drain out of my head.

After much loud oratory, I look for ways to retrieve the file. After all, Vista, with all its invasiveness, backs everything up, for your (and your nation's) security. I access that part of the program after much searching. Vista tells me that the backup portion of its services is not activated, though I distinctly remember selecting it when I was installing this turd-o-nugget program on my new laptop. No help there. And of course Vista hides all of your settings and program menus. After repeatedly getting windows notifying me that I had no authorization to open up various program files (no authorization?? It's my computer! {cue more loud oratory}), I finally find the backup file, completely by accident. I now have three separate versions of this file, in varying spots, in case this crock of crap gives me more problems. I think the least Microsoft can do to rectify this is that those of us that got suckered into buying this operating system should get free access to the Service Pack updates that Microsoft sure as heck oughta be working on 24/7. I'm not a hater. Really not a hater, but there is a special place I'd love to shove this Operating System. Let's just say it'd be in Bill Gates' direction, and it won't be pleasant. GO APPLE!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Windows Vista Still Sucks

I never want to deal with Microsoft ever again. I put off buying a laptop as long as I could, then when I broke down, had no choice but to buy a Vista laptop (unless I wanted to go for Apple). Vista runs slowly, my computer takes eons to shut down, Vista hides controls that I should have easy access to, and Vista won't talk to various other things, most importantly my scanner, which this semester is a vital thing for me to use. In looking at the website of those that built my scanner, they've deemed it old enough to not even bother with drivers that will allow it to talk to my Vista-ridden computer. It talked just fine with my XP computer. So...a scanner I bought three years ago and have hardly used until now is unusable. I'm so happy that Microsoft is making all of these decisions for me--which operating system I can use on my computer, which mouse I can use, when it's time to buy a scanner, even though I have a pristine one on my desk...I'm having to type out my poetry copy packet by hand, because I'm not going to have to cart an entire trunkload of books someplace so I can get poetry scanned. This has Dave more than a bit pissed. Others are saying this all more succinctly and amusingly than I am (I am far from feeling amusing at the moment), so I shall sign off with a doff of the hat to those who put together the following video:

My next computer is gonna be an Apple, by god. Microsoft, you've been put on notice.