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[DECEMBER 2013.]

Said otherwise, I enjoyed The Guermantes Way because I so recognized Marcel’s longing to get into Oriane’s house—the longing of someone who believes he has no home of his own.

Fucking Twitter—that if Twitter comes not as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all—

The inhibitor is knowing one’s audience too exactly. The computers were told to ascertain their exact histories and characters, because M. Market said so. Well, there’s a reason I haven’t checked the access logs on this thing in years. Kathryn sent a Times article on ebook analytics in which an author (who makes six figures from “young adult paranormal romances”) asks (not really asking), “What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?”

Ack. I see the utility. Like the utility whose job it is to keep the furnace running, or the toilet flushing. I think “engagement” is another mask of the old enemy, ambition.

A seat in my winter garden, no more. Good. Well, perhaps very bad. I yain’t what I yain’t, sailor man.

Programming pauses while I am visited by Streptococcus pyogenes, the chained-granules productive-of-pus. Pyogenes, the even crustier cousin of Diogenes. He moved out of the barrel into a sewer grate, and stank and stank, and was not visited by Alexander.

Local Minima

The Philip Glass Ensemble, Einstein on the Beach, an Opera in Four Acts, UC-Berkeley, October 27, 2012.

Alarm Will Sound, Music of Steve Reich, Stanford University, March 16, 2013.

Alongside the long path of thinking about minimalism and rock, there came a couple of live shows by American colossi. The Reich was especially on point, being in part a successful cut-up of some harmonies from Radiohead albums, but both were helpful in getting a handle on genre. Like many people, I’ve often thought of minimalism as somehow twinned with electric rock, seeing as they sprang up around the same time and place and used many of the same technologies.

Riley, Reich and Glass (whose selections from Einstein on the Beach I also heard at the same time when Glass toured San Francisco with his group) all influenced me positively and pointed to a way out of the cul-de-sac in which I seemed to be stuck. I had grown up listening to jazz and then later found myself surrounded by the pounding, insistent rhythms and simple harmonic language of rock. That genuinely native music felt to me like my own genome… what appealed to me about these early works of Minimalism was that they did not deconstruct or obliterate the fundamental elements of musical discourse such as regular pulsation, tonal harmony, or motivic repetition. Indeed they did the opposite: they embraced pulsation and repetition with an almost childlike glee. To me, it felt like the pleasure principle had been invited back into the listening experience.

—John Adams, Hallelujah Junction

Plausible, but a distinction is getting blurred. Granted, everything blurs in the 1970s; you have high-culture magpies like Adams pilfering from the radio at the same time that art-school rockers are raiding the conservatory. But they started in different corners.

I was a kid who grew up with jazz. I was born in 1936, so that was my quote unquote popular music. In 1950, I heard bebop right after I heard Bach and then The Rite Of Spring and those three musics basically form who I am. To tell you the truth, when I was a kid and I heard Bill Haley and Elvis and Fats Domino, I couldn’t care less. I was just like who would listen to this? And I just went back to listening to Miles Davis and I really didn’t pay attention to rock and roll.

—Steve Reich, 2013 interview

I believe him, too; only I think one music is missing. It stands to reason that, faced with the Stravinsky/serialist spat, Reich would side the former, but to fully map his genome you have to go back one revolution earlier, to the unavoidable Wagner. I’m thinking of Nicholas Spice’s description of The Ring:

We follow the action in big temporal arcs, several times longer than those we would experience in a play using the same dialogue. For example, the dramatic action of the first scene of Die Walküre takes four times longer in Wagner’s opera than it would if you simply read it aloud… In passages such as this one, Wagner’s music has an effect on our sense of time that is the reverse of the effect most music in the classical canon has on us. Where most classical music expands our sense of temporal duration, Wagner’s contracts it. Most music, though short, seems long; Wagner, though long, seems short.

I admit that Wagner may not seem short to everyone. But the time dilation that Spice describes is exactly what happened to us in high school, listening to Einstein on the Beach in the car, and even more so in the performance beginning to end. It was high school friends who came out from Tucson to see it with me (on mushrooms, as it later turned out; keep it weird, Tucson). One of them, who would organize 24-hour video game marathons with Einstein on the Beach looping in the background the whole time, used to say, “I don’t know if Glass’s music is even very good; it’s just so long that it doesn’t matter.”

That’s a useful thing to say about such music, like the odd acuity of the Twain quip that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The five minutes of E flat that begin Das Rheingold are a zero point; if they are not quite death, they come prior to our experience of life. And that, more than technology or tone, is what separates such works from the germ of rock music, because the salient thing about rock is of course that it is alive, that it hooks together the simplest of devices, a magnet and a vacuum tube, and makes them sing.

Minimalism ran the rock algorithm backward. Instead of bringing machines to life, it pressed human performers into emulating phase patterns that machines could have created, that we do hear machines create every day, and so arrived at, not death—even when Glass addresses the atom bomb, it’s never simply death—but the same undeath that begins Das Rheingold. An ascetic’s bliss, the love itself unmoving of “Burnt Norton.” Also a skeleton picked clean, a memento mori worth a long look. It’s said that Wagner’s music out of time corresponds to a world that had lost its teleology. The world of minimalism is harder to describe, being our world, but we’ve suffered it already.

Other Folks’ Music

The great records of 2012 that I happened to notice were all rap albums (Aesop Rock; Killer Mike), but this year the guitars came back. I’ve yet to parse the 32 tracks on Throwing Muses, Purgatory/Paradise, but it needs a nod. What’s more:

All agree that My Bloody Valentine’s m b v sounds “just like their old stuff,” impressive since they couldn’t have pulled it off by copying Loveless after twenty-two years colored by Loveless. A perspective trick was needed, like the deliberately misaligned mirror in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, that would crop out the old song structures and leave the texture. The three-minute looped chord of “Nothing Is” is for just that set of listeners who have ever slumped their heads against the guitar cabinet and hit the same chord over and over, stunned in the pleroma of tone.

Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You asks a lot in its title, but how I love it. Its weirdness isn’t the mythic weirdness of Fox Confessor, just the personal weirdness of a songwriter who has dived into the bottom of her craft, where the sea creatures are. The structures are surprising but not ostentatious; only after the lush sound has faded do you realize with what parsimony it was put together. Askesis, late style: the production shimmers and the band is in fine form, but it’s still the voice at center, the personality becoming itself.

The auteur theories of Jehnny Beth read very French, but the music on Savages, Silence Yourself, is pure Spirit of Berlin, or just Spirit of Rock. Guitar, bass and drums understand each other the way the instruments did on the great Sleater-Kinney records or the first Erase Errata album; and it’s a real mystery why the points of reference should be all-girl bands, why Spirit of Rock continues not to visit the boys. For all that Beth’s stage presence quotes Ian Curtis, her version of idealism really makes me think of the young Bono, whose embarrassing earnestness was needed as much as the genius guitar to make those early eighties records that still matter to me. The crowd-connection routine still works, too; when she leaned out over the monitors at the Independent this September and looked us full in the face, I felt shatteringly called out from my self-presentation as an invisible thirtysomething in a hat. It was as if I’d failed a test. I don’t know where this band is going, but it’s a good moment.

Minimum Country

I had the title in mind early, and meant it both as a description of my homeland and as a program for genre. I thought there might be a kind of minimalism placed halfway between Woody Guthrie and Gang of Four, that would speak to the time as they spoke to theirs. The results don't sound much like either, but are perhaps more intelligible against those starting points.

The record was made on a laptop, the oldest computer in the house, that could barely play back the mixes in real time. It was the only machine able to run the still older audio software that I’d kept around from a time when software was still traded on CD-Rs.

Making it took just over four years. Everything except the noisy parts was done late at night, in hours stolen from trying to meet the minimum in other areas. One attempt at austerity was to leave out the keyboards. Everything’s a guitar aside from cello here and there, and the horn samples on “Wannsee.”

Whatever the value of the record, I’m happy to remember it as an act of enormous stubbornness.

Berkeley—Palo Alto—El Cerrito, 2009-2013.

Autobibliography: the New Baktun

As far as I can see through the fog, the Books of the Year in English were two translations: the delightful Leskov collection from Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Ottilie Mulzet’s chaperoning the safe arrival of Seiobo Down Below. Cheers for both! But we’re still untimely out here, so the best books I read in 2013 (apart from the Leskov) were Bandarshah by Tayeb Salih and Evelina by Fanny Burney.

Bandarshah is a little like Pedro Páramo in that it’s not like anything. A short, inconclusive book (it includes two of a projected five parts), it barely has time to jump between decades in sketching three generations who sometimes inhabit history and sometimes parables or dreams. The village and a few of the characters are shared with Season of Migration to the North, but without the sharp lens of that book’s anger, things tend to fall out of focus. The effect is mesmerizing.

Evelina is a master’s study of being trapped in a room full of other people and their unwanted attentions. If you’ve been in that room you know. The subtitle announces a young lady’s entrance into the world, but something must be wrong with the geometry because each step forward gives her less freedom to move. Anything other than the standard comic ending would have been unbearable; what a relief is genre. And how fresh she makes her stock characters. Some behave correctly and some less correctly, and some really, oh dear, quite uncorrectly; these last are her specialty, and it’s as funny as Sturges.

I never noted anything for 2012, a black pool of a year. What did I read? I fell into Platonov’s The Foundation Pit. There was a lot of good Iberia: Rodoreda (notably A Broken Mirror), and Queirós, The Maias.

I’m unhappy with all my guitar strings, so I go to a reclusive Berkeley luthier who’s rumored to make the best strings in the world. I find him sitting at a table in the back of his run-down Craftsman, surrounded by guitar parts. He listens to my complaint, nods and speaks in a wispy guru voice best transcribed with italics.

My strings cost sixty dollars each. That’s three hundred sixty a set.


It’s worth it, handing me a guitar. Play an open D.

I play. It sounds all right.

Now an open A.

I start to strum a chord and he pulls the guitar back.

That’s enough for now. Have you ever listened to… Radiohead?

“Um, yes?”

They are touring in Afghanistan, and they sent me all their guitars to repair. A shake of the head. Those guitars were hopeless. I threw them all in the trash. Literally. I’m going to have to make them new guitars from scratch.

“Oh, really?” I commiserate, and glance around for the dumpster.

The life aquatic

“And this is a picture of an orca.”

“Orca. I saw a orca outside!”

“Really? Outside?”


“What was the orca doing?”

“Umm... hiding in the plants.”

Natsume Sōseki, Sanshiro

The costs of Meiji acculturation.

As he glanced in through the gate, Sanshiro said the word hydriotaphia to himself twice. Of all the foreign words he had learned thus far, hydriotaphia was one of the longest and one of the hardest. He still did not know what it meant. He was planning to ask Professor Hirota. Yojiro had guessed that it was something like de te fabula, but Sanshiro saw an enormous difference between the two. De te fabula was a phrase that called for dancing. Just to learn hydriotaphia was a time-consuming effort, and saying it twice caused one’s pace to slacken.

Sanshiro continued on home, also walking quickly. He went back to the library that evening to look up romantische Ironie. It was a term first used by the German philosopher Schlegel, he found, and apparently it was some kind of theory to the effect that a genius ought to spend the whole day hanging around, without purpose or effort. Relieved at last, Sanshiro returned to his room and went to sleep.

And on top of all that, there’s girl trouble!

Going viral

Pathogen season! Do you remember the Monthy Python sketch about the British army in the Raj or wherever, where soldiers kept showing up in the infirmary tent with arms or legs missing, and the officers were worried about a virus until the doctor explained to them that no, a virus was too small to take off your leg, and this was likely to be something larger, like a tiger? Precisely that. Not precisely. I’m getting better and nothing bit me. The blood orange sorbet that we were saving for times of trial pleased the throat going down, but it also confused the shit out of my hypothalamus and caused me to shiver around J. for a half hour. This film, I thought, is not being correctly cranked.

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