18 August 2010

What am I doing here (or: Why I love independent musicians)

Posted in music, The Indie Handbook tagged , , at 1:26 am by Eric

I don’t know what it is that has brought me to this point. Maybe it’s something mentioned in passing in one of my recent artist interviews. It could be the recent staff changes at The Indie Handbook. But I think it’s something that has been building over the last year. When we were still working on the blog together, Kristin and I swore we would always stick to writing about the music we love. And though that may look different now than it did 18 months ago, I am more committed to that ideal than ever before.

I have a deep attachment to all the artists I write about, both as musicians and as people. More importantly, I am more closely connected to this music than I have been with any other. It is more important to me than even the songs I wrote in high school. It means the world to me because it is music made by my friends. And no, it’s true that I have never met the vast majority of the artists featured on this blog, but a handshake is a formality. We are all trying to bring something beautiful—something of intrinsic worth—into an ugly world, and we all rely on each other to make that happen. Is there any more solid foundation for friendship than that?

I think the turning point for me was in April 2009, when I received my first “thank you” email. We were averaging fewer than a dozen hits a day at the time. Our impact was less than negligible and yet, here was a band half-way round the world just thankful to be heard. And as we waited for our coffees in St. James’ Park, Laura Bettinson drove the point home: ‘if you don’t write about them, who will’? It’s a slow build and I suppose I’d win more points with people if I wrote about the bands they were already interested in reading about. But at this point, I don’t think I could ever do that knowing who I would be leaving behind.

This is the music I love, made by the people I love. It’s why my reviews are written the way they are. In the first interview I ever conducted, Shara Worden discussed how moving it is to think of the idea of musicians dedicating their lives to the creation of something beautiful. I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember. And, in pouring years of my life and countless bits of myself into music-making, I have learned one thing above all else, if there is one thing in all the world that is deserving of my undivided attention, it is the music of another human being. It’s true that I’ve been told (by several close friends nonetheless) that they would prefer to read a brief account of what’s good and bad about an album, but I cannot bear the thought of it. It seems unjust to reduce several years of a person’s life to a list of pros and cons. After all, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

1 August 2010

In Defense of Pure Music

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:02 am by Eric

I feel as if I owe you all an apology. I’ve spent the last two weeks transcribing an interview I conducted in London several months ago and haven’t had time to post any reviews. Once you’ve read it, though, I think you’ll forgive me. At 7,500 words, it is rather epic, which is precisely why I am not apologising for the recent lack of activity. No, my sin was committed over a year ago, when I was given an hour with Shara Worden—one of the brightest lights in American music—yet failed to pursue the most interesting topic broached in our time together: the idea of pure music.

Immediately following our meeting, I thought I had done quite well, especially for my first ever interview. Of course, that was a long time ago, before I had fallen in with ne’er-do-wells like Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette and become a card-carrying member of the alt-classical movement. Then again, at the time, I didn’t expect to read something like this:

We estimate (complete speculation based on no fact) that 75% of “pop” musicians (not necessarily the songwriters) don’t read music, and an even larger percentage (even including pop songwriters) have never studied music theory. We say this not to seem snobby, but to bring up the next point.

Pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way.

~ Rosebrook Classical blog

Likewise, I never expected to hear such absurdist speculation called “intelligent” by people I respect and who (I think) respect me. (Actually, “absurdist speculation” implies a degree of self-awareness in the author. In this case, it’s more like polemical condescension.)

[If you need to take a moment to let off some steam, punch a pillow, or swear a bit, I completely understand. Just try to keep in mind, they don’t intend to “seem snobby”. We will reconvene momentarily.]

Now, if you’ve been brave enough to read the offending post from the beginning, you may have picked up on the author’s “reason” for launching an unwarranted attack on feckless simpletons like Emilie Simon (Medieval Music, La Sorbonne; Electronic Music, IRCAM), Owen Pallett (Composition, University of Toronto), and Dave Longstreth (Yale). (Hint: It’s money.) And, I will grant that the initial question of the “discussion” is an interesting one. Why any form of music be granted non-profit status or given the benefit of government funding? Unfortunately, rather than exploring the issue, the author (I don’t know his name, but I think I heard someone say “David”, so I’ll be using masculine pronouns) resorts to repeated rehashings of his thesis: “I’m not saying classical music is better, but, seriously, we all know it is…”.

Of course, had he conducted more (or any) thorough research, he probably would have noticed the myriad examples of national governments that support classical AND pop music, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the UK. However, it appears that, for the kids at Rosebrook Classical, talent is a zero sum game and only one genre can lay claim to it. How fortunate we are, then, that their presticogitateur-in-residence has had the wherewithal to explain the inherent ineptitude in my choice to write about under-appreciated pop bands rather than the 186 recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 currently on the market.

It’s the creativity, don’t you see? Classical musicians have it. Pop musicians don’t, at least not in the high concentration classical musicians do. After all, as we learned earlier, “pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way”. He’s probably right, of course. I mean the Antarctic field recordings Emilie Simon sampled and modified for Marche de l’Empéreur were all naturally occurring, as were the plant and water sounds she used for Végétal (my pick for album of the decade). And that’s not creativity, that’s stealing! After all, “creativity must be learned and fostered as much as anything else”.

Wait. Creativity is learned? No one ever taught me that!

But didn’t Sir Ken Robinson once say “we are educating people out of their creative capacities….I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”? (In case you’re wondering, yes, he did, in his legendary TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity”, which you can watch below or on the TED website). But seriously, who cares what a world-renowned expert on innovation and creativity thinks about creativity? After all, @RBClassical (the ultimate authority) knows quite well that assigning names and rules are the building blocks of creativity, not intuition. Surely you don’t require any further explanation, but indulge me for a moment.

I was speaking with a friend—a translator—this past week who was telling me about her first experiences in translating, a gloriously delicate art if ever there was one. She explained:

When I was doing my M. Phil, I joined a translation course…because I was already a translator…and I thought it would improve my skill. […] I found that [my colleagues] translated by dealing with words as things, …whereas I would come up with the apt word instinctively. […] The outcome of that course was that…I couldn’t translate for almost two years. It had made me…too self conscious to do anything.

Of course, I don’t mean to deride education. As many of you already know, I have an advanced music degree (which is apparently why I will never be accepted or appreciated by pop musicians) but there is a lot to be said for intuition—more, in fact, than can be said for rules and systematization. Intuition is the reason why, though we followed the same rules, J.S. Bach composed his magnificent Chaconne in D minor while all Bethel Schiefer and I could manage was Canticum graduum (read: absolute rubbish).

I am beginning to realise that if I actually try to address every one of my grievances, this post is going to run about 15,000 words, so I’ll leave things to Shara Worden, and a brief extract from the interview we did last year. You remember her from My Brightest Diamond. She’s one of those stultifying pop musicians who doesn’t think about anything, as evidenced by her comments about writing her most recent album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth:

At the beginning of the writing process for Shark’s Teeth, I was listening to a lot of Boulez and so I was trying to write songs—more so trying not to be prescriptive of the songs, not dictating the form of the songs. Allowing the harmony to take it to a different place, or not having repeated choruses or kind of trying to find different ways of setting the text, so in a certain way the text was more important, the texts and the harmonies were the priorities. You can see that with songs like “Goodbye Forever” or “If I Were Queen”.


The thing I am interested in now is rhythm, and so I don’t know if there will be many strings appearing at all on the next record. I’ve been trying to define my harmonic language, so now I’m really excited about finding a rhythmical language.

If you haven’t yet, I suggest you read the interview. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in there. And afterward, if you’re still interested in what real pop musicians think about when writing music (rather than what defensive classical music bloggers think they’re not thinking about), read the Emilie Simon interview.

Division is the last thing I want from all of this. When I first pitched the idea for The Indie Handbook to Kristin, I did so with the expressed intent of addressing classical and pop music on equal terms, because there is no superior music. And the offending blogger gets one thing right: that “if the biggest reason for Arts subsidization is fostering creativity, then the advancement of the Arts themselves should be the most important creative endeavor to support as a society”. Unfortunately, the Arts are not advanced by defensive diatribes aimed at cementing one aesthetic preference firmly atop a pedestal. The higher you build your ivory tower, the further you’re carried from the Music of the Spheres.

Now, let the musicking begin.

10 June 2010

To coin a phrase: The evolution of presticogitation

Posted in Etymology, lexicography, words tagged , , , , , at 10:57 pm by Eric

I have never given much thought to participatory lexicography in my lifetime (well, there was that one time in 2006). That is, I hadn’t, until this week, when I came across a lecture Erin McKean delivered to the folks at Google in 2007. Over the course of an hour, she addresses numerous topics relating to dictionaries, though it is none of those which concern me here. I am, instead, hung up on one word: presticogitation.

According to most sources, the term presticogitation was coined some time around 1986 by linguist James Vanden Bosch (Calvin College) to denote “rapid mental processing that commands compliance because of its speed and beauty”. Former Vanden Bosch student Nathan Bierma dates the first printed appearance of the word to a 1988 issue of Spark (the Calvin College alumni magazine). It has since appeared in a handful of other places, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune (in a column written by Bierma). However, these uses of Vanden Bosch’s neologism have occurred almost exclusively in reference to his campaign to have the word added to the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes as no surprise, then, that his efforts have been, as yet, unsuccessful.

As a sort of “prestidigitation of the mind”, if you will, it is easy enough to see that the word has some degree of usefulness. I myself have used it at least three times today, though admittedly more so out of novelty than necessity. I, at least, have no direct connection to the campaign. Nor, I suspect, had Alexander Winchell any acquaintance with Professor Vanden Bosch when he included the word presticogitation (as well as its adjective form, presticogitative) in a book review—in 1887.

At the time, Winchell (former professor of geology and paleontology at the University of Michigan* and a professor at Vanderbilt in 1887) was not so much concerned with having his word added to the OED as he was with finding a word to describe the style and execution of Ignatius L. Donnelly’s Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. The book, together with its even more popular precursor Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, attempts to explain Donnelly’s theory about the lost city of Atlantis, namely that Earth’s collision with a comet’s tail brought about the demise of the most advanced of ancient civilizations. Of the book, Winchell says:

Undoubtedly, this is a work of genius;….It is worth reading; at least, if one wishes chiefly to be amused by an extraordinary association of facts and legends and conclusions. If one never saw a square plug fit a round hole, here is a rare opportunity to see the feat accomplished over and over again, twenty times in immediate succession. Prestidigitation is nowhere in comparison with this “presticogitation”. Literature has never been the field of equal jugglery. Keen jokers never smile at their own sallies; so our author is everywhere as grave as a logician, and as earnest as the state’s attorney in working out his theory of a capital case…The feint of argumentation is so consummately done that the unsuspecting reader absorbs the conclusions with avidity, and the trained skeptic asks himself, “Is this man in earnest or is he romancing?”

Even Donnelly’s etymology of the word ragnarok betrays his flair for presticogitation, opting for the more useful pairing of regn (“rain”) and rök (“smoke” or “dust”) over the accepted combination of regin (“gods”) and rökr (“darkness”).

While Vander Bosch’s proposed definition of presticogitation seems to favor application to the spoken word, the literary connotation of Winchell’s original does seem to have more potential for practical application. It is for that reason that I find it so baffling that a Google search for pages containing both terms (“Winchell” and “presticogitation”) returns only two results, both from Google Books: Winchell’s original article from The Forum (September 1887) and the same article reprinted in what appears to be a collection of Winchell’s writings. Were I mounting a campaign to see a favorite word of mine added to the OED, I would be inclined to invoke Winchell’s use of it to establish some degree of precedence and legitimacy to my claim.

Both copies of Professor Winchell’s article “Ignatius Donnelly’s Comet” were digitized by Google Books in 2006, the latter only two weeks after Nathan Bierma’s piece on Vander Bosch’s campaign was printed in the Chicago Tribune. Though I doubt that most people perusing the works of obscure nineteenth century geologists do so whilst on the lookout for little lexicographical gems like presticogitation, the insatiably curious amateur in me cannot help but be somewhat disappointed that the movement (if it can be called a “movement”) has grown so preoccupied with its progeny as to (apparently) neglect it’s progenitor.

*It is interesting to note (not to mention nearly impossible to ignore) the relatively close proximity of Professors Winchell and Vanden Bosch’s places of employ, which is as far as I am willing to speculate on the matter.,

N.B. I make no claims that any of the above is in any way irrefutable or even entirely accurate. It is the sum total of an hour’s research and a few hours of writing—and this is no joke—by candlelight (power outage, you know). I am not a professional anything. I count sheet music for money, but any semi-sentient humanoid could do my job. Sometimes I write about bands no one has ever heard of. As usual, you are under no obligation to take me seriously.

Here is Erin McKean’s Google address, below which is her (considerably) shorter yet equally inspiring TED Talk.

29 April 2010

On reading and rereading and rerereading

Posted in magazines, reading, thinking, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:13 am by Eric

If people had cared about such things back in the 80s, when I was little—and if my parents believed in them—I probably would have been diagnosed with a learning disability. Whether or not it would have been an accurate diagnosis, I can’t really say. What I do know is that, for all the books I pick up, I rarely finish any of them in a timely manner (if at all), because a new idea always seizes my attention. And every idea has to be explored.

To say it happens a lot would be an understatement. (Consequently, I read at an agonizingly slow pace. For me, 20 pages per hour is borderline miraculous. Realistically, it’s closer to ten.) I realize that, in 100 words, I have managed to destroy the pseudo-intellectual image I have spent two decades constructing. Hopefully, those I’ve duped into thinking my mind is in any way normal will not bother to read this.

So, yes, maybe I have been working on Swann’s Way since 2006, but my hyperactive synapses are not entirely an unrelenting hindrance—at least, I don’t think they are. The Indie Handbook was an idea I had whilst reading Thom Reynolds’ I Hate Myself and Want to Die, and that seems to be working out ok.

Last night, I was reading the new issue of Lula Magazine—well, I say “reading”, I spent 90 minutes on the same two-page interview I’ve attempted every night for a week. Lula is probably the single most inspiring periodical I have ever encountered, and though Issue Ten hasn’t quite knocked me senseless the way Nine (the phenomenal tribute to redheads) did, but it gave me an idea. I don’t know if it’s an Indie Handbook caliber idea, but it could prove interesting.

I am starting a magazine.

If you’ve got 20 minutes, I would encourage you to watch this video. It’s the TED equivalent of Lula Nine and it is pertinent to the topic at hand.

24 April 2010

Enter. Absorb.

Posted in advertising, aesthetics, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 2:53 am by Eric

Wexner Center for the Arts

I love the Wexner Center. Architecturally, artistically, conceptually, it is by far my favorite place in the city of Columbus. If any entity in Columbus has the right to be a bit pretentious, it is the Wex—and yet, it is the only art or performance venue in this town that does not make me nervous. So, I can honestly say that any criticism I offer is levied out of love with genuine hope of improvement.

Yesterday, this new Wexner Center ad campaign was posted on Twitter (@wexarts). I am 100% behind the visual aesthetic represented here. The design concept is consistent with other Wex campaigns and promotional materials I have seen in the past, down to the arrows (pointing up and to the right) reflecting the Next@Wex aesthetic. It’s the text that gives me trouble.

“Enter. Absorb. Blog. Retweet.” It is a narrative—the story of the spreading of an idea—and as a narrative, it makes perfect sense. When spoken, however, the contradiction is unavoidable. The first two words, enter; absorb, serve their purpose perfectly, propelling the narrative (as both thought and speech) forward. The difficulty arises with the subtle harshness of the word blog. All the momentum of “Enter. Absorb.”first stumbles on the repeated B before colliding with the G and collapsing onto the period, breaking the rhythm and forcing undue emphasis on the full stop. This can be used to great poetic effect. Take, for instance, the opening lines of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;”

In the case of Eliot, the disrupted rhythm with emphasis on the pause mirrors the stagnancy of the evening being depicted. For the Wex ad, however, a hitch in the narrative is detrimental to the overall effect. The word retweet is passable, though it does result in its own share of textural awkwardness.

The campaign’s overarching theme of progression and the passing-on of ideas, is, I think, still perceptible (though I cannot help but wonder if, had the conflict between rhythm and narrative been avoided, the implication of movement might have been even more apparent).

21 November 2009

Hello world!

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:38 am by Eric

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!