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El Porto Waltz

We found ourselves last night dancing at the ballroom again. We lost interest in the lesson quickly though, and chose to sit down, though our partner danced on, promenading around the dance floor, celebrating the dance community’s values. We thought of E. B. White’s dictum “Omit needless words.” Adapted for dance, it reads “Omit needless steps.” The lesson last night featured the waltz. We liked the country-western waltzes best: “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Waltz across Texas,” “Zydeco Waltz.”

We had used too many steps to express our personal El Porto Waltz, and sat at a corner table, nursing a cup of coffee, thinking of a post, writing notes on our handy pocket card with ball point pen, our favorite, the BIC Ultra, blue, glides like Danny Kaye (in our hand) across the worn tongue and groove, waxed maple floor of our imagination. But alas, without a reader for a partner, we are a single on that dance floor, a sometimes-discouraging feeling.

How is dancing like writing? Consider the forms, or styles. Dancing and writing both employ basic steps necessary for the partner-reader to recognize the form. The writer must learn to lead the reader, and not step on the reader’s toes, and, ultimately, discover the right combination of moves that allows grace to descend. One can improvise, but one improvises on the theme; drift too far, and the improvisation loosens anarchy upon the dance floor. The reader-partner must at least have some encouragement to follow the writer’s lead. Without that encouragement, one dances across paper solo.

Lord I’m 500 words away from home

Burkhard Bilger points us toward a definition of folk music: “Before 1945, Ledbetter liked to say, you could tell which side of a ridge a banjo player was from; after 1945, most just played like Earl Scruggs” (New Yorker, April 28, p. 56). Beyond that pointing, what’s folk remains unclear. Bilger argues that folk evolves to a distilled purity that is the defining characteristic (p. 55). When the music in the isolated communities where folk originates becomes watered down with outside influences, that defining characteristic of purity is lost.

Yet variation is characteristic of folk. The author of folk music is not anonymous as much as communal. Folk songs are created by a community, passed down and sent away, and come to rest in other places, changing shape to suit local needs. A key characteristic of folk music therefore includes improvisation. A contemporary example is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics augmented and modified in many covers. This is why Bob Dylan rarely sings his own songs the same way twice. When folk passes from the community to the individual, its defining characteristic of variation is lost.

“900 Miles” morphs into “500 Miles.” It’s a train song, a folk shape, and the folk musician understands the form can be filled with any number of miles, train rides, destinations, lonely whistles. Keys change to suit voice and instrument; words change to update the form to contemporary, local needs. We find examples of this morphing in literature: Huckleberry Finn turns up in Holden Caulfield; Melville’s Ishmael gets a nod from Vonnegut’s Jonah; Romeo and Juliet sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; the Henry of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage meets Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms. The origins of literature are found in the origins of folk music. The individual relocates traditions. At the end of the cycle, the individual disappears back into the folk community, the folk song re-emerging as something new.

Buckley and the hard work of writing

William F. Buckley, Jr. now occupies, we hope, a seat in the bleachers to the right of Home Plate. We’ve been looking through his Buckley: The Right Word. We were not surprised to find him weighing in on the reading crisis. This, from 1980: “The good news is that there are people around who are trying to discover why it is that American youth, year after year, are having greater and greater difficulty in expressing themselves. There are a lot of wisecracks readily available (“they have nothing to say”), but one tires quickly of them, and then genuine worry sets in” (p. 131). And having nothing to say did not dissuade John Cage, who said, in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it” (Silence, p. 109). Buckley finds fault with TV: “You can’t simultaneously spend four hours watching television and four hours reading good prose.” But he also acknowledges that any suspected blame does not seem to apply universally.

If any one fault can be ascribed, perhaps the sheer physical difficulty of writing, and writing correctly, must be to blame. We are looking for cause and effect, but can not find even correlation. The effete and elite are each stricken equally, as the case of the Harvard student, passing placement exams but sitting in Expos unable to write a sentence, demonstrates. Buckley is then thrown off base by the Dick Cavett caveat, “Why does it matter?” Then comes this thunderbolt: Buckley relates that William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, once told him, “I am afraid, Mr. Buckley, that you do not really know the proper use of the comma.” Buckley’s response: “If St. Peter had declared me unfit to enter the Kingdom of God, I could not have felt more searingly the reproach…” (p. 306). Things are as bad as they ever were because nothing has made things any easier.

Thinking about writing, and actually sitting down and doing the writing, are two different occupations. We can always start a book with a few chapters and claim a work in progress, even if we never pick it up again; but who benefits from this kind of deception? Buckley points to the hard work of writing: “Working on a novel, I like to write every day….On the other hand, don’t ever devote the entire day to doing just that….I’d like to see more novels not written by people who have all the time in the world to write them” (p. 285).

But if writing is hard work, “But how would the reader know?” Buckley asks. The answer to that question Toulmin gives us, arguing that the work the writer does not put in, the reader must. But in spite of the hard work, Buckley assures us there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. “Writing, if it’s done at all, has got to yield net satisfaction….I’m simply saying that writing is terribly hard work.” So he allows for distractions, change of pace and location, ancillary pursuits. He listened to music while writing: “Yes, I have the record player on most of the time.…I don’t play jazz when I write. I don’t know why but I just plain don’t. But I do when I paint” (pp. 290-291).

We do listen to jazz when we write, almost exclusively, but usually instrumental, no vocals, which can be too distracting. But what’s the one significant takeaway we want to emphasize with regard to the hard practice of writing? What do we want from writing? What do we expect? We must write most days to develop answers to these and other questions about writing and reading. Posts may be warm up exercises to the real work.

Buckley, W. F., Jr. (1996). Buckley: The right word (Harvest Book edition, 1998). New York: Harcourt Brace &  Company.

Jazzskin

Words are sounds, first; then what do we do to them, to the sounds? Jung thought grief gave human voice to sound. This is the meaning of Norman O. Brown’s “The fall is into language” (Love’s Body, p. 256), though it seems equally plausible that joy, close friend to grief, might also be capable of producing a word or two. Dostoevsky contributes to the modern discussion in “Notes from Underground” with his often quoted “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” If so, the first words uttered by conscious man must have been sounds of pain: Ouch! If you prefer cartoons, a caveman accidentally rolling the stone wheel across his big toe. Joyce spelled it:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!)

(Finnegans Wake, p. 3).

Norman O. Brown: “How to be silent. In a dialectical view: silence and speech, these two, are one. Apollonius of Tyana said silence also is a logos. And words do not spoil the silence for those who have ears to hear what is left unsaid” (p. 256). Listen to Ella Fitzgerald scat singing. Instruments reproduce the human voice, first (another reason Cage objected to jazz – and worked with sounds apart from voice). Louis Armstrong thought his trumpet an extension of his voice, and he sings as he plays. What we do to words is similar to what Cage thought we do to sounds in making music (anthropomorphizing sounds we hear in nature). Words give conscious order to sound, allowing for the reproduction of sounds with fidelity, creating self-consciousness through language.

Here’s something recently dug out that might illustrate in a playful way:

JAZZSKIN was published in the fall 1973, issue 3, of silent quicksand, a magazine published by students of El Camino College.

Jazzcage

“Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said, in his “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965,” the first text in his collection “A Year From Monday.” “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words” (p. 12). David Revill, in “The Roaring Silence,” his biography of Cage, discusses “the puzzling attitude he [Cage] develops toward jazz” (p. 9). “He [Cage] says simply, ‘I love sounds, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them’ (p. 121 – Revill’s source notes don’t indicate where he got this Cage quote, and in a quick skim of my Cage books I’m unable to find it).

I’ve always found Cage’s “…(jazz) doesn’t work” statement surprising, given how he integrates chance into his structures. Cage often sets up a rigorously defined structure only to let chance determine what comes next. For example, from his preface to “Diary:…” “I used twelve different type faces, letting chance operations determine which face would be used for which statement” (p. 3). Isn’t that jazz?

I think Cage’s classical training explains his attitude toward jazz. Classical players don’t improvise. Composers improvise, as Bach probably did, but the classical musician has to play the thing as written. Jazz’s frequent use of popular songs as sources for improvisation probably also annoyed Cage, since he was more interested in sound than sentiment.

Let’s substitute “words” for “sounds” in Cage’s statement that begins “I love sounds”: This gives us “I love words, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them.” And we might make the reverse substitution in the opening quote above, which would give us: “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use sounds.” Is it possible to enjoy words but not writing or reading? Cage appears to have preferred raw sounds to music that refines those sounds in an attempt to communicate something, even if that communication is an attempt to mimic nature.

But we are nature, and the guitar sounds like a train coming down the line, and the drummer’s brushes sound like salt water receding over smooth stones. All sounds carry some meaning. Besides, Cage’s “Diary” follows with “(Dialogue is another matter.)” What? Another matter (discussion, music, discourse?) wherein jazz does work?

Hank Williams sings Huck Finn

“At the center of liberal education,” Northrop Frye gives us in “Ethical Criticism,” the second essay in “Anatomy of Criticism,” an attempt to create a science of literary theory, “something surely ought to get liberated” (p. 93). So what gets liberated?

“Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels,” Frye says. “Literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally: the forms of literature can no more exist outside literature than the forms of sonata and fugue and rondo can exist outside music” (p. 97). The writer is not alone, after all. In fact, “the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (p. 97).

Not being alone means belonging to a community. Frye calls this “social aspect” of poetry archetype, by which he means “a typical or recurring image…which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience. And as the archetype is the communicable symbol, archetypal criticism is primarily concerned with literature as a social fact and as a mode of communication. By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into the body of poetry as a whole” (p. 99).

We find a working example of Frye’s subject in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a hit song by Hank Williams, written in 1949, and since covered by numerous musicians across the musical spectrum, the original lyrics often amplified, or augmented, (the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has recorded instrumental versions on “Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian”; and “Ghost Town”).

But what has all this got to do with Huckleberry Finn? In chapter I of Mark Twain’s novel, we find Huck, worn out by the parlor room evening with the widow and Miss Watson, alone in his room, trying “to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.” Hank removes Huck’s superstition and softens the tone, but the sentiment remains: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.”

So what’s so liberating? The knowledge that you are not alone, for one thing. We are encouraged by Borges, in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” to suggest both that Huck is a precursor to Hank, and that Hank changes our reading of Huck: “…the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. …The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Labyrinths, p. 201).

The way in is the far out

John Cage opened the windows of the music room. He incorporated unintended as well as intended but unconventional sounds into music composition, thus acknowledging a modern electrocution of music that alters the sensorium. Music became an extension of our wired ears. The way in was the far out.

Cage created performance lectures, utilizing a multi-media approach that combined sound, text, and oral lecture with non-linear arrangement and movement of ideas, words, sentences as musical phrases, and anecdotal asides (his short-short stories approximating the Zen koan). Bulleted lines, multiple columns, and a variety of font characteristics permeate the text versions. The lectures are collected in the books “Silence” (1961) and “A Year From Monday” (1967). Cage’s initial attempts were an effort to incorporate his musical ideas into different modes of argument, so that the listener could “experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it” (“Silence,” Foreword). The lectures are measured compositions. The composer provides time values, tempo markings, directions for rhythm and pitch, and textual arrangements serving as bars and measures. Chance and indeterminacy informed Cage’s composition process:

“At Black Mountain College in 1952, I organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture…The audience was seated in the center of all this activity” (“Silence,” Foreword).

Not everyone in the audience may have enjoyed the attempt to rearrange their sensorium. Cage relates, of his “Lecture on Nothing,” “One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain, ‘If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.’ Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out.”

We may feel a similar response to some of today’s pervasive PowerPoint presentations. They are not written, or composed, but put together, as in “I put together a PowerPoint for today’s meeting.” The use of PowerPoint is itself a value assumption (warrant). Yet for organization and presentation of an argument for today’s reader (who has not the time, inclination, or patience for linear modes – a reader now beyond the Guttenberg Galaxy, outside the margins of McLuhan’s marginal man, a mosaic man), the persuasive possibilities of the PowerPoint slide show are hard to beat.

For a consideration of the potential ill effects of PowerPoint, see Ian Parker, “Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?” The New Yorker, May 28, 2001.