All Good Music

I was reading through the Wiki entry for Frank Zappa, can’t remember why, and came across this quote from his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:

Since I didn’t have any kind of formal training, it didn’t make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin’ Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels …, or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music.

— Frank Zappa, 1989[1]: 34 

Zappa, Frank; Occhiogrosso, Peter (1989). Real Frank Zappa Book. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-70572-5.

The title of the Zappa book might contain a reference to the musical fake and real books, collections of a kind of shorthand lead sheets used by players as sketch or blueprints to cover pieces. These music books usually fit any song on one page, and show melody notes and chord symbols. The original fake/real books differed from songbooks in that they did not include lyrics and were mostly used by jazz players who only needed guidelines, not strict written scores that might have gone on for pages and still only approximated what one had heard or wanted to hear.

The many versions of fake and real books published over the years complicates a description; suffice to say they provide a recipe for the song, but the musician still needs to do the mixing and cooking. They don’t work like player pianos. That reading above of the title is layered below the obvious one, that so much had been said and written about Frank that he decided to sort the wheat from the chaff and clarify what the real Frank Zappa was all about. I’ve not read it, but I’ve put a copy on hold.

Meantime, what about the part of that quote that says, “all good music.” What is good? What is music?

Fake and Real Books

Notes on Earliest Parietal Art

A Science Bulletin article, available online 10 September 2021, titled “Earliest parietal art: Hominin hand and foot traces from the middle Pleistocene of Tibet,” provides an opportunity to consider definitions and purposes of art. The article discloses and describes what appears to be the discovery of the oldest known evidence of human art, from over a million years ago, much further back than any previous find, and probably made by children.

To ask the question what is art and attempt an answer is to engage in an argument of definition. The scientists involved in the recent discovery outline a kind of argument of stipulation; that is, in the example being discussed, for something to be considered art, it must include mimesis. It must be “a copy of something else.” And that copy is taken out of its natural context and given a new birth:

The Tibetan art-panel meets this basic criterion, but with its own flourishes. The placement of the prints is not as they would naturally occur, with tracks spaced by movement, or hands placed to stabilize [4]; rather, the artist has taken a form that was already known through lived experience (i.e., the artist presumably having seen their own footprints), and took that form (the footprint) and reproduced it in a context and pattern in which it would not normally appear. This is made even clearer by the addition of the handprints, which are not commonly seen in lived experience.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scib.2021.09.001

According to the definition of art built into the article, the object of art need not be something an audience bows to in reverence. The skill required to make the artwork is not as important as the intention of the maker that the work be “received as art.” The purpose of the work might be “enjoyment, fun or decoration.” The article uses the example of contemporary parents displaying a child’s work as art, even if “tentative artistic endeavours as art.” The authors argue the prehistoric art panel satisfies all of those conditions.

There are other important implications and conclusions of the discovery and analysis of the hand and foot prints (a human presence not expected on the Tibetan Plateau so long ago, for example). But the insistence of calling the panel art seems to distinguish this discovery from that of some other remote relic or fossil find.

What is art that does not free us from the existential cages into which we are born – distraction, deceit, knickknack; advertisement, marketing, sales? In short, propaganda. The artist deviates, moves on, leaves, wanders, wonders, is born again, an outsider, without a comfort zone. Even to just want to be an artist might suggest a kind of alienation, isolation, irrelevance – playing an instrument out of time and pocket. To turn art into a practice is craft, which is fidelity. Art is what is born again, a reassembling of experience, a repurposing of predicament. A pastime, when we had time on our hands.

The word primitive does not appear in the “art panel” article of foot and hand prints. This may be read as a sidestepping or a deliberate absence from the definition. Seen as art, the prints develop their own place of permanence and value without reference to a hierarchy of skill level, training or education, or complexity of instrument. The body parts are at once the form and content and implement of the art work. And it is the arrangement of those parts, the rearrangement in an unexpected pattern or rhythm or placement, that fulfills the necessary characteristics of a work of art.

I’ve been making art with my granddaughters since they were toddlers. I’ve put together a collage here of pieces, adding a few other pics on topic:

The Bananafish

A popular fish in some schools the deep
sea swallower called the bananafish:
Sansjawdsalumpigus.
Though it lives on the floor of the aphotic zone,
it is not bioluminescent; in fact, it’s invisible.
Rising to the surface with changes of tide, mind,
and mood, it’s worse by tens than the burbling
Jabberwock. A bananafish is never caught;
it slips you, and you are capsized.

The bananafish sees without eyes things
that disappear, hears sounds in the depths
of silence, lives on even when squished
or peeled or baked into bread or spread
in undigested seeds. They live in clusters,
but it only takes one to upend your plans
for a day, a week, or a lifetime. Nevermind
the Jabberwock; beware the brilliant
brainy glare of the bananafish.

What bites but has no teeth?
What smells but has no nose?
What swims without fins,
goes loopy if left to shelf,
barmy as the froth of beer?
Ans: the double-dealing
bluff bunko, the sly hoax
of Sansjawdsalumpigus,
commonly called the bananafish.

20180826_085709

Verlyn Klinkenborg: “Several short sentences about writing”

In the beginning was the word, and the word was a sentence.
And the sentence was an assignment.
And the assignment broiled in the brain,
that alchemical brewpub of doubt.
A devil came near, cooing, “Plagiarize, my dear;
allow me to serve the sentence for you.”
A good angel appeared: “Depart, ye fiends of papers for free.
Ditch, web dwellers of rehearsed research.
Begone, you bad teachers of bad writing.
Students can do this on their own.”
And singing Blake’s proverb, from
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“No bird soars too high if he soars
with his own wings,” the angel dropped a book
into the waiting writer’s lap, and flew away.

What book did this fresh, good angel drop, which might bargain anew all the how-tos with writing students and their teachers both in and out of academia? Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing (Vintage, April 2013). Klinkenborg challenges schooled approaches consisting of “received wisdom about how writing works” (Prologue). Klinkenborg turns the traditional writing teacher on his head and shakes the bulges out of his pockets. All sorts of found, useless stuff drops out, lightening the student’s load. Klinkenborg speaks to the writing “piece,” considers genre arbitrary and binding. He eschews genres and schools and rules. But not grammar and syntax. Loves the fragment, not the run-on. His style is controlled by “implication.” Implication is a good sentence’s great secret, its ability to suggest thought. His sentences often illustrate their own attributes. The book as a whole is a study and a reflection on that study of the sentence. The book’s prose is cut into lines that emphasize what’s necessary to read a sentence for its syntax and rhythm and space. Some may see this as mere trickery, and maybe the book is a slow, idiosyncratic, quiet rant. His discussion of “rhetorical tics,” the bane of Freshman Composition that remains through graduate school and beyond like an old scar, is funny and sad (118). If you’ve ever completed any assignments on your own, you might recognize yourself in his descriptions of a web of false writing. I did. But I also saw many hunches I’ve had over time validated: writing is learned while writing and in no other way; a good writer is a good reader, a good proofreader, but also a good general interest reader, which means not having to have something that “interests me” before being able to read it, because good writing creates its own interest; teachers have done so much damage to students that many students would rather risk plagiarism than think and write on their own.

There are contradictions, difficult to resolve. Klinkenborg says, on page 57, “You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well.” I agree. The apparent contradiction is that he then spends the next sizable section of the book on what we should know about grammar. “You do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs,” he says, but he doesn’t say why, nor does he try to explain that difference (though the answer might be found in an implication I missed). If we don’t need to know grammar, why spend time on it? This is an important question. And of course we do know grammar. We learned grammar when we learned to speak. But we may not know how to talk about grammar or to read for grammar or syntax. And some knowledge of parts of speech and what we think of as grammatical terms might be important to certain kinds of reading. He wants us to find words in a dictionary and to notice etymology and parts of speech. This is sound. But some of his precepts seem vague, even New-Agey. Explaining implication, he says it’s “The ability to speak to the reader in silence” (13). Well, John Cage did speak to the reader in silence. And Klinkenborg’s many references to the way we were taught to write in school are at risk of becoming a kind of straw man argument. Has no one tried to dig through the dried up crap of fabricated rules before? But the straw man here, if there is one, might be personified as an industry of text books, so the challenge is worth the charge. Klinkenborg may not be an archangel delivering a sacred text, but his book clears the air for a spell.

A colleague suggested the Klinkenborg book, and I’m glad to have read it and to recommend it for general interest readers, writing teachers at any level, and students at any level, anyone, in short, in or out of school, interested in reading or writing. Yes, Klinkenborg wants to talk to the whole writing world about sentences. He wants to non-specialize the traditional approaches to thinking about writing, remove bogus rules from circulation, instill faith and trust in aspiring readers and writers.

Several short sentences about writing is divided into four major sections and many subsections. The book (204 pages) does not wear its skeleton on the outside. The main sections are as follows: 1 – a short prologue; 2 – the central text (146 pages), the sentences arranged in cut lines, like verse (opposite of what we’ve come to expect from prose); 3 –  “Some Prose and Some Questions,” eleven short prose excerpts by established writers, followed by a section inviting analysis of the pieces through reflection suggested by specific questions Klinkenborg provides; and 4 – Some Practical Problems, 33 pages of short sentences from student writing, with short comments by Klinkenborg. It’s not a text book, but it could be used as a text. But that would require, perhaps, changing the mindset of an instructor, or even of an entire English department, or at least calling upon instructors to reconsider traditional “received wisdom about how writing works,” or how the teaching and learning of writing might work.

Here’s an example of a wonderful Klinkenborg sentence fragment: “The faint vertigo caused by an ambiguity you can’t quite detect” (55). This is quoted unfairly out of context (is there any other way to quote?), but who is “you” here? What kind of reading experience must one have to get dizzy reading a poor sentence? And here’s an example of the way he challenges the august teaching community: “…The assumption that logic persuades the reader instead of the clarity of what you’re saying” (117).

By implication, at least, Klinkenborg’s sentences touch on many of the topics usually covered in composition classes: research, authority, argument, outlining, chronology and sequence, style, ambiguity, rules, rubrics, writing models, imitation, rhythm, revision, editing, meaning, figurative language, transitions, reading, reader, clarity. The sentences wit and cut new paths through this overgrown field.

If you are into marginalia, this Klinkenborg book is a lepidopterist’s field day. I found myself chasing sentences around the book as if they were butterflies. My copy is a mess of notes. I was inspired to try my hand at an original sentence. Here goes nothing: Thoughts without sentences are like flowers that never bloom, each tightly wrapped petal a word waiting to become part of a sentence to be smelled, to be read or heard in a single breath. Klinkenborg would say it’s too long, ambiguous, cliched, doesn’t breathe. And it doesn’t make sense. Do we hear through breathing? Sounds like something a Woody Allen character might say, the audience erupting in laughter, the irony on you. “The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly…” (132). Easy for him to say.

Related Posts:
As You Like It: Rules for Writing
Ticker Tape Sentence
A Year From the Use and Misuse of English Grammar