Saturday, May 31, 2008


I presented my paper on Vertigo this afternoon at the Music and the Moving Image conference here in lovely NYC (a beautiful day spent inside in the dark, but interesting at least). If you want to see any of it (including me!), you can see it online for a limited time:

The hot button topic this year is diegetic and non-diegetic. I heard two excellent and thoughtful papers on the subject. Jeff Smith's keynote wanted to expand the idea of diegetic, noting how directors stylize mise-en-scene, like colors, light, dialogue, or even the set itself in Dogville, but one never doubts the diegeticness of these elements, and that music is similarly shifted temporally or spacially in ways that serve the narrative function. David Neumeyer had an excellent response, centering on Atonement, exploring the ways in which diegetic and nondiegetic interact, and ways in which they're grounded. For me, it seems like the issue is one that approaches will vary with each film. Consider another way I've thought about this: a diegetic musical cue that is at odds with the scene, ironic contrast between a song on the radio and the action you see. That lack of cohesion is bound to call attention to the artifice, artifice which would render that otherwise perfectly diegetic music into the world of nondiegetic, as imposed upon the scene. It's a fascinating topic, with plenty of shall we say passion directed at the subject, but ultimately one that I feel will resist one paradigm, settling instead on different ways to understand the differences.

My talk was on the prelude to Vertigo, and I'm pleased to say I got a couple interesting and helpful sources, and many appreciated compliments on the paper. But afterwards, I got the one question I always fear in part because it's a valid question, and in part because there's no answer. The question of whether any of this was intended. And certainly Herrmann was no novice at music, and I'm sure several of the large scale things were deliberate choices. But the dilemma is that when you interpret it, you'll never know. And to deny anything you can't be sure of is to paralyze musicology. And there's certainly something to the issue of reception, that it's at least as valuable as authorial intent. But there is that desire, lurking underneath, to have the two match up, to faithfully find what was put there on purpose, and to know that it means something. It's like getting in on the in-joke. But the joy isn't really in knowing, it's in the finding, the uncovering of the music. I'd much rather discover the intent after discovering the music. Discovering the intent without the music is meaningless, discovering the music is everything.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


And off I'm going to Philly for a bit of friend-seeing before embarking on the more acadmically justifiable trips to NYC (conference and the NYPL) and to DC (Library of Congress). Anything I'm forgetting?

In other news, I'm officially a candidate, paperwork pending. I just enjoyed my first night out to a movie in quite some time (expect more soon), and quite enjoyed The Visitor. Like Tom McCarthy's other film The Station Agent, it's a film that revolves slowly around a central friendship tentatively established through circumstance. Richard Jenkins, in a perfectly nuanced and understated performance, plays Walter, a college professor coasting along distractedly and impassionately, presumably until retirement. He works on his book, he teaches his classes, he practices piano, the instrument his wife played. But even the piano never seems to bring about emotion. And this is part of the beauty. Like The Accidental Tourist, it's a film about thawing, and the reason it works as well as it does is precisely because Walter is a character who is fascinatingly ordinary. He's not bitter, he's not frustrated, he's not grieving over his dead wife, he's just there, doing the same thing as always. This changes when he's sent to a conference, and finds his apartment has been the home of illegal immigrants, who've been renting it from some other guy. Tarek is a drummer, his wife Zainab makes and sells jewelry (featuring one of the more hilariously awkward moments with a "hip" mother shopping there). What's beautiful about the movie is how the turns in the narrative feel natural, unexpected, and wholly uncontrived, because McCarthy settles into a breezy, comfortable pacing led by the characters. Tarek teaches Walter to drum, Zainab remains more cautiously distant. The characters learn to live with another, and Walter actually simply learns how to live.

One of the things I want to point out to all the academics is just how well this film captures the professorial Walter. At one point, he makes a remark about finding it difficult to talk about his work with nonwriters, a remark that carries a surprising amount of resonance in the film and with me. Academia has a tendency to wall itself off. Walter ends up seeming the odd one out, enjoying the drumming in the park rather than schmoozing. And the result of academia is frighteningly portrayed here, complete lack of outside contact leaves Walter unable to really find what interests him in his work. There's the grand realization is not something about globalization (what he studies) or immigration or politics or humanity, but a simple personal revelation that he's forgotten so much over his years teaching the same course, writing books out of necessity. If anything, this film is a reminder not just how important life outside academia is and for finding a way to make your work really yours, but also the fact that music is something that has bearing outside academia. On the subway, in the home, in the classroom. You can love it anywhere, but you have to love it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

It all comes back again

In several ways. First, I've been catching up on all the posting. But it's hard, with several other things vying for my attention:
*I cooked dinner for the co-op today. The cake literally took over an hour and a half in the oven. But it was tasty.
*I have to give my run-through of my Vertigo paper for the Music and the Moving Image Conference tomorrow. Next time I decide to do a heavy analytical pitch-class tonal trajectorty nonsense paper project, remind me not too. Sibelius and I have gotten re-acquainted.
*I've started my part-time summer job working with the Robert Altman archives here. This stuff is great! I'm starting with just getting my hands around the stuff, but even just reading the descriptions of the boxes (which I will have to rearrange all 800-something of) has told me several things about what he did or didn't do. I'm excited for this. And library research in a week or two.
*Planning for my research (and friend visiting, show seeing) trip to the East coast. Philly, NYC, and DC. Still working out logistics about housing, which is driving me slightly nuts. Only slightly though.
*The satisfying end-of-semester paper toss. Everything must go! Also some books I have no idea how I ended up with, but won't read.
*Reading for fun. At the moment, Nicholas Baker's bizarrely miscellaneous The Mezzanine. Cute.

So, I'm a busy boy, but there's one thing that I grabbed my fancy as I was catching up. Greg Sandow had a recent posting responding to some comment about why we return to familiar music. He's certainly right that one shouldn't only bask in the familiar, though I'm not sold that anything like that is in danger of happening. And basking isn't a simple replication or not; good performances have the ability to render the familiar fresh and surprising again, bad ones can disappoint. So why do we return to familiar music? I think the flaw here is in the question and answers both, it treats all music the same. Sandow has a rather gloomy opinion of basking: The classical music business, as we know it today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we want, but we shouldn't confuse this with art. Art should have a broad definition. It should include basking, it should include challenges. I agree wholly with Sandow when he says these new films can hit us where we live, because they mesh with the world we live in. But old films do that too, and I think that is closer to why we return to them, because they can still have that impact. To reborrow the cliché, no you can't step in the same river twice, but hey, if you like getting wet, that shouldn't stop you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Personal news first. I took my special field exam, and feel pretty good about it (thanks in large part to the sizable chunk of musical theater in the listening portion). The essays seemed rather, uh, vast—one on whether nationalism is an effective theory for a musicologist, one on how form has been manipulated in twentieth century music (this question required examples in classical, musical theater, film, and popular, covering the entire twentieth century).

I can happily attest that I can recognize "One Song Glory" from Rent from the first three notes, as I was asked by my professor during the test whether the CD player worked. I have no real shame about that either.

And then after the test, I joined my friend Jesse, who defended his dissertation the same day, and others for a celebratory drink. Quite pleasant.

In more somber news, Robert Rauschenberg has passed away. I remember the daunting and fascinating task of choosing his Estate(1963) for a paper in Art History. The interpretive possibilities set the mind reeling, and that for me is what I love about Rauschenberg. His works are immediately inviting, fascinating juxtapositions, familiar and yet wholly original, unpretentious but without settling to give you an easy or obvious answer. I don't know the details (and I want to) about his relationship with John Cage, but they both seem to capture that post-war spirit, the fascination with technology, with everyday images and objects, but Rauschenberg I think succeeds in giving it more of that visceral energy. The old becomes new and exciting again.

Also in the news, the Tony nominations are out. I've only seen the revival of Sunday, which was marvelous and ought to win something for its set. I hope to catch Gypsy, South Pacific, and In the Heights while I'm out east this summer. But what excites me is this larger trend in Broadway. The revivals of Sondheim, if they're any indication, manage to be incredibly inventive without sacrificing dramatic or musical choices. They give you a reason not just to content yourself with the original cast recording. And if In the Heights is anything like Spring Awakening, it may not the legitimization of rock musicals, not as simply a way to attract audiences and sell songs, but to make the language of the vernacular a vehicle for insightful drama and social messages. The history of musical theater is a history of national sentiment, really, from Berlin and Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein to Sondheim and Kander and Ebb. It just makes me sad when the best we can seem to muster these days is to take movies as they are and slap some pop-style songs on them or a collection of already popular songs and string them together.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Procrastinatory miscellany

Time is running out before the exam, which means that so is procrastination time.

Things that are making me smile (sunny weather I can't enjoy properly aside):

Tom Riis was here for our annual MASG residency. Every year, we have a scholar visit, and this year was especially exciting to me, both because Tom has a lot of energy, and he studies musical theater. The professional development section and the one-on-one time were especially helpful just on the details of how to do this thing, and the rest of the visit was peppered with all sorts of interesting topics and stories. Fantastic.

Dinosaur comics scores two points for the English language. Thanks T-Rex!

The roller skating scene from Shall We Dance. Actually, the whole movie. Also, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

New Inspiration for teaching

And the moments I get to go walking outside. Not just for the weather, but because when I walk, I get to listen to my iPod. That means freedom from my listening list (although I will admit an increasing obsession with Bernstein in preparation for my research).

I'll return after the exam, probably with comments about it. Oh, how I look forward to going out again.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Writing, good

One week left until the special field exam, so expect intermittent posting. However, I thought I'd share some of my favorites from the period. In the past week, I've pushed my way through 23 books, skimming except for the parts that seemed especially pertinent for my work. Each of these books wins points not only for being clear and informative, but also beautifully written, sometimes to the detriment of my time management plann of skimming.

Ingrid Monson's Freedom Sounds. A fascinating journey into jazz in the 1950s and 1960s. Always insightful angles, loaded with pertinent and colorful detail, and clearly loving every minute of music.

Tricia Rose's Black Noise. It's sort of the work on hip hop, and you couldn't ask for a more culturally rich, musically aware introduction.

Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow. Fascinating glimpse of the 19th century's shift in cultural values. Several people have quibbloed about details and whether he overstates his case, but if so he overstates it so irresistably. These sorts of stories I just find so appealing, almost like a good historical novel (and I mean that in a good way, not dismissive).

Joseph Horowitz's Classical Music in America. Like the Levine, detailed history of broad cultural change made fresh and alive.

Peter Burkholder's All Made of Tunes. I'm seriously in awe of that much work. And his edited collection of essays Charles Ives and his World is an excellent companion piece.

Bernard Gendron's Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club. A look at the ways in which music crosses from art to pop or the other way. Compelling stuff, especially with the masterful way all these narratives end up intertwining and echoing.

Finally, two stand out. The first is Michael Broyles's Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music. I'm not sure what impresses me most, but it's probably the fact that he's able to get so much in the book, to make his examples concise and yet perfectly clear in their function. But he's also mastered the art of the subtly directed narrative the book. It never fails to be relevant and interesting or lacking in direction. And beautifully written. Well worth a look if you have interest in this music.

Jason Tanz's Other People's Property is the last book I read, an examination of hip hop's role in white America, and it raised an interesting tangential question I want to end with. I didn't take a lot of notes from the book, since it isn't as clearly in line with my studying task at hand, but I read it front to back nonstop. It was that kind of book, the kind you don't expect to be on a shelf with the other Library of Congress nonfiction books. It's not as theoretical or musical in its focus, which may account for my lack of notes on it. But also to that end, as I was reading I found it all too easy to slip from thinking of it as a scholarly work to simple a masterful story.

And here I'm torn on two accounts. Is the writing style working against it? Are we more likely to trust an author who cites more theory, has more footnotes? The second gets down to a simple question of musicological versus ethnomusicological priorities. Historical musicologists like sources, footnotes, in short, evidence. If it comes from an archive, somehow it's more reliable that one person's experience. And I have problems with that, although I found myself (involuntarily) less willing to think of this ethnography as that kind of evidence. Aaron Fox's Real Country was also riveting and a well-told story, but also more theoretical, and somehow I didn't have this issue reading that (quite the opposite, as it ranks among the best scholarly books I've ever read). So why should this book's even broader accessibility render it (in my mind at least) somehow less trustworthy as a scholar? Certainly the details he gives are exact and applicable, the conclusions he draws well supported, and so forth. The upside, I suppose, is that all this school still hasn't killed off my love of reading a well-written book. I just wish it didn't make me so damn skeptical.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Writing, bad

PMG summed up my feelings about the Pulitzer for feature writing rather nicely. I actually went back to read it and found, in fact, that it was worse than I had remembered. I do think part of the blame lies with the readers for taking the discussion in the wrong directions. I for one wanted to know why it is that classical music remains so wedded to the idea of the composition to the point where I feel the performers are all marginalized. Beethoven is Beethoven. Other corners of music inspire much more passion much more consistently about covers, which performance you're listening to, live albums, etc.

Anyway, I'm not writing to complain about a story from last year, but rather one from last week (hence my recalling the post and rereading the article). Like the Joshua Bell article, it has such an interesting premise, and then dashes any hope of actual substance, and this one's even worse. It's an article on young gay marraiges. And it's the most vapid bit of journalism, with equal bits Cosmo gossipiness and pretentiously swank name-brand dropping. Enjoy these choice passages:

"It was a cozy, festive affair, complete with some 20 guests and a large sushi spread where you might have expected the chips and salsa to be. “I beg of you — please eat a tuna roll!” Joshua barked, circulating around the spacious apartment in a blue blazer, slim-fitting corduroys and a pair of royal blue house slippers with his initials. “The fish is not going to eat itself!”
Spotting me alone by a window seat decorated with Tibetan pillows, Joshua, who by that point had a few drinks in him, grabbed my arm and led me toward a handful of young men huddled around an antique Asian “lion’s head” chair. “Are you single? Have you met the gays?”

I realize it's exposition, but it just sounds like you're doing everything to point out how fantastically materialistic these people are. And it only gets worse.

Several couples lamented the fact that they had never met another young gay married couple. This left them without a model to help them shape or understand their own relationship, and it seemingly left them without anyone who could relate to their unique circumstance.

Wait, I can understand wanting a community, but do people really need a model? I don't think I've ever heard anyone claim that their marriage was modeled on something. That seems, actually, like a terrible idea. He continues...

“They see other married people like them everywhere. We don’t. It would be great to have young gay married couples who we could hang out with.”
“I actually met one the other day,” Daniel, who sat by Anthony on the couch in their apartment in Brookline, said matter-of-factly.
“You did?!” Anthony said, nearly spilling his glass of wine. “Did you get their number?”
Daniel hadn’t. This momentarily crushed Anthony, who seemed to yearn to interact with other gay people — single or married — more than Daniel did. (Anthony joined Boston’s gay flag-football league the previous fall, partly in an effort to meet other gay people.)
Other couples, like Joshua and Benjamin, had an abundance of gay friends of all ages and clearly reveled in having their cake (marriage) and eating it too (a social life that rivaled that of many of their young single gay friends). It was hard to keep track of the many social engagements the couple invited me to.

Good, we can safely dodge the issue by noting the glass of wine (I wonder what kind) and the bountiful social life. It makes it hard to take this seriously.

When I finally did hear from Marc and Vassili in February, they had good news. They had filled out the requisite forms at City Hall and were just waiting the three state-mandated days before collecting their marriage license. In the meantime, they were celebrating by luxuriating for a night at an upscale Boston hotel. They invited me to drop by.

Oh goody. Don't worry, what follows is precisely what you expect, and again a genuinely interesting point about conventionality is swept humorously away.

When the clerk finished typing up the marriage license, she walked back to the counter. “Are you going upstairs?” she asked the couple.
“What’s upstairs?” Marc asked.
“The city clerk. She can marry you.”
“Does she like gay people?” Marc said.
“She loves gay people,” the woman assured them. She looked at the document in her hand.
“Is that our marriage license?” Vassili asked excitedly.
“Yes, it is. Do you want it?” She started to hand it to him and then stopped, toying with him. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, please!” he said.
“Wait!” Marc said dramatically. “I think I’m having second thoughts.”
The woman froze.
“He’s kidding,” Vassili said.
“Totally kidding!” Marc assured her.
The woman laughed, handed Vassili the license and wished the couple well. As we walked away from the counter, Marc, who had tried to mask his nervousness with humor, looked as if he might pass out. “I need to go to the bathroom,” he said. “I’m feeling lightheaded. Don’t get me wrong — this is very cool. But it’s actually happening. I’m actually getting married — to a man!”

Does she like gay people? That was the point at which I decided I could not let this pass. So consider me one up should this ever win a Pulitzer.