Tuesday, September 27, 2005


In her seventh-grade music class at Barrington Middle School, Hilary was required to write reviews of pop recordings. The teacher, a bass player in a local cover band, brought in back issues of Rolling Stone to give the kids an idea of what to say; a review of Graffiti Bridge was presented as a paradigm case. The assignment was to review one song from Tears for Fears' Seeds of Love album. To increase the students' pop music-critical vocabulary, the teacher emphasized the concept of the pre-chorus during in-class listening sessions. On the exam, students had to evaluate the bass playing on "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Hilary gave it a seven but was unable to explain, since she couldn't tell which instrument was the bass.

I find myself now in a similarly awkward position. I guess I'll start with some sounds, and if you listen to them you can just skip the review:
The Sensualist
A Field Strewn with Thorns/This is the Story
Two Top Teeth
These are songs by Clov, the loved-or-hated non-performing duo of Chris Weisman and Ben Stamper. Chris and Ben have been making home recordings of their music since they were high-schoolers in the early 90s, and they've recently formatted the adult form of their project—a run of six short albums, one a year since 2000—as MP3s. This is their homepage; here is a shortcut to their recent albums.

I like this music because I think it's good, but I know about it because Chris is a friend. During the first few days of college, when the altered circumstances of my life were doing violence to my sense of self and showing it to be neither natural nor necessary, I met Chris at a music department meeting. I was there to drop my music courses and change my intended major; Chris was there to do just the reverse, and it became his lot, not mine, to study composition, theory, and jazz guitar at college.

The extent to which this academic influence mars Clov's music is a subject over which reasonable people can, and do, disagree. (This criticism concerns Chris's songs more than Ben's.) City Song, a vaguely Latin thing in seven, could have been a Kurt Rosenwinkel tune; the guitar solo on This is Fun for Me—which I thought I had learned note-for-note before Chris pointed out a couple flubs—is strongly influenced by Pat Metheny; the first six chords to The Sun Bear Six are borrowed from a part of Keith Jarrett's Sun Bear Concerts; Two Saxophone Players, a song about a young jazz student who aspires to crush a complacent and beer-bloated upperclassman, is built over a D minor-to-Eb minor form familiar from "So What" and "Impressions," and a lyric about "Coltranish subs" is delivered over a programmatic snippet of "Giant Steps" changes. A bit of a fusion nut myself, I can't feel the force of criticisms that Clov sounds too brainy or jazzy. Whether weird chords and melodies can decode as candy-pop may be up to the openness of individual ears; I guess I think that these songs come off as pretty darn musical.

Interestingly, an equally typical complaint is that Clov’s music is too emotive. The simple melodies of You're Invited are too guileless to be sincere in some trickily cool way, and they overlap too innocently to sound contrapuntal—they just share space politely; the B-section, whose emotional effect is hastened by a near quantum-level shift in the acoustic presence of the vocals, might make you cry. Ben holds nothing back on Denbow; his urgent vocal performance transforms the song's theme—that a name has an expressive life independent of what it names—from a precious observation about words to a consuming obsession with occult forces. The melody of It's Softer Now would sound false coming from any singer who didn't believe that music is art. This suggests a second factor influencing how a listener will handle Clov; perhaps you have to believe, along with Ben and Chris, that music is, starting from its bare formal features, a spiritual force; that music should be transformative and important; and that trust is its only possible foundation.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Identity and Objectivity at the Nick

Dieter Henrich begins his long essay "Identity and Objectivity: An Inquiry into Kant's Transcendental Deduction" with this sentence:
We do not yet know how philosophical texts are to be interpreted.
Sitting in the dark at the movies the other night, I was seized by a thought of similar form but incomparable in its existential import and consequent worry, and utterly lacking the spiritualist-scientistic optimism implied by Henrich’s "yet":
I do not know how to live.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Losers weepers, part two

When I awoke from a long nap after my bike ride yesterday afternoon, I noticed that a pin Hilary had bought me at a junk shop in New Hampshire had fallen off my backpack. The ring-and-stickpin configuration was still stuck into the nylon, but the button part was gone. Now, while I’ve never been a great wearer of pins, this particular one—on which a sleepy-eyed cat sits comfortably atop a rainbow whose spectrum shifts from cool to warm colors as it crosses into the cat’s body—had meant a good deal to me, as I considered it a portal to an image-world familiar from childhood, in which benevolent, nameless cartoon animals might emerge in any domestic, commercial, or educational scene—in cross-stitch bestiaries, pillowcase jungles and deserts, sticker albums, greeting cards, place mats, book orders, filmstrips—indolent, harmless rhinos and crocodiles lumbering across the pages of math workbooks where pencils and jacks and sacks of marbles wore tags marking prices in cents. These raccoons and lions and laughably angry-eyed birds were singular, unbranded individuals, repeated across a bedsheet pattern, perhaps, but otherwise confined to a unique domain, never to appear on television, never to be mentioned or imitated at recess, private animals of uncertain authorship, whose tongues, paws, tails, teeth, and eyes signified deeply but outside of the grid of names and products and programs that would allow you and me, as adults, to determine whether we knew the same image-animals as children.

So the pin was gone, sitting in the gravel of a bike lane in Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland, or Yarmouth, resting in the grass amid McDonald’s bags and Mountain Dew cans and Bud Light cans and Coors Light cans, or irradiating some lucky finder’s eyes with spectra 25 years old. It was possible, though, that on a second pass I’d find the pin. Moreover, I remembered the exact location where, while riding, I had unzipped the flap onto which the pin was fastened; no doubt it was this activity that either knocked the pin off or made its connection tenuous and unsustainable. Besides, the mere rehearsal of the search would exorcize my regret—I knew this from the great feeling of satisfaction I enjoyed when, after attending Brenda Wineapple’s talk on Hawthorne at the public library earlier this summer, I retraced my path as exactly as possible in order to look for a strap that had apparently unclipped from my backpack—a favorite backpack from junior high—during my walk downtown, which strap I was unable to find.

As a segue to my asking Hilary to drive me to this location—it was too near dark and I was too tired to go out on my bike again—I asked if she remembered a certain animated segment from Sesame Street in which a boy gets lost while riding his tricycle through a strange, kaleidoscopic town and is told by some wise man or machine simply to go back the way he came. Hilary did remember this segment, and she sang, pitch-perfectly, the song that accompanied it:
Behind your face there is a place
They call it your brain and your mind
If you succeed to look inside
O! what wonderful things you’ll find
As she remembers it, the town was a fountain-world of spinning parts, rendered in bold, black outlines on a white background and colored in pastel oranges, pinks, and yellows. The man who sang the song was a sort of whirly-gig man, who may have been the same as a certain clock mounted on a color-surface of cascading bands.

So Hilary drove out, as slowly as socially possible, and I scanned the bike lane for anything round, white, or colored. Since we were already out that way, I had Hilary pull over to look at the tiara wrapped around the disused lamppost, the sight of which she found squalid and shocking. The item was, of course, dead to me, having burned through whatever ancient neural constellation had briefly constituted its preternatural symbolic familiarity like a hole whose flaming radius expands to engulf the entire image as the celluloid melts in the projector. We turned around at this point, though on the return trip I searched as vigilantly as before, undeterred by the recognition of the crass idolatry of my devotion to the cat-rainbow image complex, whose manifest sense at best distorts and generalizes what can be grasped only accidentally or partially, on the fringe of sight or thought or dreams, or not at all.


Sunday, September 18, 2005

Losers weepers, part one

This morning I rode my bike out to Cousins Island (there is a bridge) to look for a power plant whose blinking smokestacks Hilary and I used to see across Casco Bay, looking out the kitchen window of our old apartment. The ride was long (for me), about 16 miles each way, and on it I saw many things: country clubs, yacht clubs, other cyclists, antique BMWs and Benzes representing all shades of brown and silver, tree-lined avenues light-tunneling like mini-Hellbrunner Allees to estates unseen, Koyaanisqatsi-caliber pylons stringing transmission lines down overgrown lanes of sumac, two Episcopal churches (one Romanesque revival, one of modern design), and, stuck onto a rusting polygonal lamppost, a silvery and rhinestoned plastic tiara whose nubbly whorls embellished the words “Happy Birthday.”

I slowed but didn’t stop as I passed the tiara, looking just long enough for its image to recall, as from some recessed chamber in which sunbleached and crumbling artifacts are laid aside for preservation against further decay, a memory-shape of childhood, an inner composition of color and desire traced from some elementary school or birthday party tableau and lifted away to allow the actual event to pass into oblivion, recording only the particular form of curiosity and expectation it had occasioned. But alas! this inner composition, whose design had bared itself all at once, began to denature in the white light of waking presence, and each desperate attempt to name the specific content of its arcs and piping retrieved an image more generic and dim, the half-grasped truth of my childhood dissolving forever under the phantomic substitution of the tiara’s glittering afterimage.

P.S. I remember now that Hilary included the power plant island in a painting from a couple of years ago, “Women’s Ways of Killing.” The house with the power-plant views is included, too, rendered from three perspectives. (Our apartment was on the prismatic top floor. Hilary’s studio was a tiny room on the second floor. The window’s lit up in the painting, and the little thing you can see on the sill is a miniature Eiffel Tower, a friendly and generous gesture toward a certain notion of painting.) I include an image of the painting below, along with one of “Permanent Readiness,” another painting from 2003. (Both images have been rather crudely cropped, though not by Hilary or me!!)



Thursday, September 15, 2005

A meme: let’s not wage a war on totality: wars on totality ours vs. theirs good totality bad totality which is which are they the same


1. Milan Kundera: The Modern Era has nurtured a dream in which mankind, divided into its separate civilizations, would someday come together in unity and everlasting peace. Today, the history of the planet has finally become one indivisible whole, but it is war, ambulant and everlasting war, that embodies and guarantees this long-desired unity of mankind. Unity of mankind means: No escape for anyone anywhere.

2. Lyotard: We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable. Under the general demand for slackening and appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return to terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.

3. Pynchon: Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates these incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines. The War, The Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Führer—it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity…. Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it…so absentee .