Thursday, October 31, 2013

How "Call Me Maybe" works, according to music theory

Sitting, waiting, wishing. (Found on Pinterest.)
"Call Me Maybe." Catchy, cute, bubblegummy, ubiquitous, so summer-of-2012. But if you are, say, looking for the chords to the song online, you start to realize that none of them sound quite right. Why is this? Don't the masses deserve better? Why has no one yet produced the ur-lead sheet for the chef-d'oeuvre of the Jepsen corpus?

Part of it is because the people putting those sheets online are trying to fit the song into the normal frame of reference that a pop song would use. You've got your tonic, your IV and V, minor iii and vi—and that's pretty much it, right? Well, kind of. Because "Call Me Maybe," while not exactly complicated, isn't entirely straightforward, either. So here, ladies and gentlemen—probably 18 months late, I realize—is a music theory-informed interpretation of "Call Me Maybe."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Of Plato, kids, and "Ender's Game"

Don't let the Buggers get you down, Ender. From
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction...
—Wordworth, Immortality Ode 138-39
I read Orson Scott Card's children's novel Ender's Game for the first time ever this summer. For those who might not know, Ender's Game (a film adaptation of which is about to be released) is a science fiction book about a six-year-old named Ender Wiggin. Ender, who is a kind of military-tactics prodigy, is conscripted by the government of Earth as a trainee general in an ongoing cold war with a species of insectoid aliens. (Spoiler alert—skip the next sentence if you haven't read the book and plan on reading it.) At the end of the book, it turns out that the whole "training" part was a ruse: Ender was actually waging a sophisticated drone war against the alien civilization the entire time, even though he thought he was just running training programs on a computer.

Ender's Game was published in 1985, and so a lot of kids who grew up in the '90s have happy memories of it. And it has all kinds of things that a reader under the age of 13 would love: space battles, long zero-gravity acrobatic sequences, preadolescents who (without explanation) somehow have the privileges and responsibilities of adults. But reading it as an adult—in particular, reading it for the first time as an adult—is really weird. First of all, there's all the hubbub around Orson Scott Card himself, who made some pretty damningly anti-gay remarks a while ago, and also has a disconcerting range of quasi-libertarian, conspiracy-theory-inflected views about history and politics. Okay, fine—I wouldn't want to meet J.M. Barrie or A.A. Milne, either.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

You are what you read

Seen in a neighbor's windowsill. (Hint: rootkits are not the answer!)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Footnote charm

Two tracks diverge in a yellow wood, and
In the middle of her famous essay "The Trolley Problem" (stop laughing—it's famous among ethicists), philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson pauses to make a pretty endearing gesture of good-humored self-deprecation, which must rank on the list of most stylish footnotes ever:
14. Notice that in this case too the agent does not use the one if he proceeds. (This case, along with a number of other cases I have been discussing, comes from Thomson, Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem, 59 The Monist 204 (1976). Mrs. Thomson seems to me to have been blundering around in the dark in that paper, but the student of this problem may possibly find some of the cases she discusses useful.). [sic]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Music for two pianos

Music for two pianos is both grandiose and fragile. Two concert grands set side by side can pour out torrents of noise, and yet the apparatus itself is the height of cultivation. The complexity of the kind of industrial society necessary to standardize the mass-manufacture of an instrument as sophisticated as the piano astounds whoever stops to think about it; the piano lasts only as long as civilization itself does. When looking for a metaphor for Europe as it slid inexorably towards the Second World War, it was to this image that W.H. Auden turned:

Monday, October 14, 2013

Juxtapositions: Ovid and Sexton

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: "Apollo e Dafne" (1625)

Ovid: Metamorphoses 1.533-552 (translation mine)
[Apollo chases Daphne, who is transformed into a laurel tree]

like when a Gaulish dog sees a hare in an empty field
and the dog seeks its prey on fleet feet, the prey its health:
the dog, as if about to catch it, hopes that now and now he's got it
and grazes its footprints with his outstretched muzzle;
the hare, uncertain whether it's already caught, is snatched
away from his bites, and leaves behind his gnashing jaws—
such are the god and the girl: he fleet with hope, she with fear.
But the hunter's helped by the arrows of Love.
He's faster, and needs no rest, and looms over the back
of she who flees, and his panting scatters the hair on the nape of her neck.
Her strength exhausted, she pales, defeated by the work
of her driven flight; watching the waves of the river Peneus,
she calls, "Help me, father! If the streams have any power,
destroy this face with which I pleased too much by changing it!"
Her prayer was barely finished when a heavy torpor seized her joints,
her soft chest belted with thin bark,
her hair grows into leafy limbs, her arms into sturdy branches,
her feet (just now so fast) stick to sluggish roots—
the treetop has a face: a single sparkle stays there.

Where I Live in This Honorable House of the Laurel Tree
Anne Sexton (1960) 

I live in my wooden legs and O
my green green hands.
Too late
to wish I had not run from you, Apollo,
blood moves still in my bark bound veins.
I, who ran nymph foot to root in flight,
have only this late desire to arm the trees
I lie within. The measure that I have lost
silks my pulse. Each century the trickeries
of need pain me everywhere.
Frost taps my skin and I stay glossed
in honor for you are gone in time. The air
rings for you, for that astonishing rite
of my breathing tent undone within your light.
I only know how this untimely lust has tossed
flesh at the wind forever and moved my fears
toward the intimate Rome of the myth we crossed.
I am a first of my unease
as I spill toward the stars in the empty years.
I build the air with the crown of honor; it keys
my out of time and luckless appetite.
You gave me honor too soon, Apollo.
There is no one left who understands
how I wait
here in my wooden legs and O
my green green hands.


Other juxtapositions:
Sappho and Philip Sidney
George Herbert and John Berryman 
Walt Whitman and Wisława Szymborska 

Click below to read the Latin version. (And who wouldn't want to?)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

New word list: clerestory

Clerestory windows in Wells Cathedral (Wikipedia)
Archit. 1. a. The upper part of the nave, choir, and transepts of a cathedral or other large church, lying above the triforium (or, if there is no triforium, immediately over the arches of the nave, etc.), and containing a series of windows, clear of the roofs of the aisles, admitting light to the central parts of the building. (OED)

Etymology: Commonly believed to be < clere, “clear,” + story, stage of a building, floor of a house. (Clere must here have meant “light, lighted,” since the sense “free, unobstructed” did not yet exist). This assumed derivation is strengthened by the parallel blind-story, although this may have been a later formation in imitation of clere-story. The great difficulty is the non-appearance of story in the sense required before c1600, and the absence of all trace of it in any sense in 14th, 15th, and chief part of 16th cent. At the same time there is a solitary instance of storys in R. Glouc. (1724) 181, which may mean ‘elevated structure’ or ‘fortified place’. The n. estorie in Old French had no such sense, but the past participle estoré meant ‘built, constructed, founded, established, instituted, fortified, furnished, fitted out’, whence a n. with the sense ‘erection, fortification’ might perhaps arise.

“There was a two-and-a-half-story space behind a lavish expanse of glass and iron, under a vaulted ceiling lined with clerestory windows.”—Patti Smith, Just Kids (44)

(Bonus poem for the day: Philip Larkin's "High Windows." Fair warning: this is a poem with "adult content," as rated by the Modern Poetry Association of America.)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Academics don't write that badly.

Randall Munroe, xkcd ("Impostor")

A certain kind of person likes complaining loudly about the prose of tenured professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It's indigestible gobbledygook masking a latent charlatanism! they cry. The 1986 Sokal hoax—in which physicist Alan Sokal submitted a preposterously fake article to the journal Social Text, which was subsequently published—is a favorite "proof" of many things, but especially the stereotype that academics and their disciples venerate whatever crap they can't understand. Ross Douthat, currently a New York Times columnist, wrote an article for the Atlantic in 2005 about his time at Harvard, complaining that he was taught merely to excel at sophistry, nothing more. A slew of novelists—Kingsley Amis, A.S. Byatt, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and Jeffrey Eugenides among them—have loved lampooning academic shop talk in their books. Critics point to the Postmodern Essay Generator, which algorithmically generates nonsense that sounds a bit like lit-theory. (Never mind that anyone with half a brain can call it out within two sentences.) Denis Dutton's "Bad Writing Contest" indicted Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha (favorite targets) for the crime of high puffery when they were still relatively young.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

New Books in October!

The publishing world goes back to "busy" after a long summer break in October (a bit like this blog). Here are the books that raise my interest the most:

The Antinomies of Realism
Fredric Jameson
Verso, $42.75
432 pp.

Will Fredric Jameson point out a new endgame for realism that frees us from having to use the silly word "postmodernism"? Or will there be lots of unfalsifiable assertions about the nature of the literary detail in the age of global capitalism? Find out in this gripping new tract from the author of Representing 'Capital.'

Martha Nussbaum
Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice
Harvard University Press, $35
420 pp.

If the subtitle sounds potentially platitudinous, what might seem more intriguing is this sentence from HUP's description: "She offers an account of how a decent society can use resources inherent in human psychology, while limiting the damage done by the darker side of our personalities." In effect, this is liberal theory's most significant problem since the time of Freud. Oxford readers: probably also a great prelude to Nussbaum's Locke Lectures in Trinity 2014.

David Mikics
Slow Reading in a Hurried Age
Harvard University Press, $28
330 pp.

I normally try to avoid anything that sounds like it's about the "death of the book" or "the end of reading," but I've had so many conversations with friends about whether quick-scan Internet reading is affecting our ability to read slowly and closely that I feel compelled to mention this book, which HUP is advertising as "a practical guide for anyone who yearns for a more meaningful and satisfying reading experience, and who wants to sharpen reading skills and improve concentration"—self-help for the harried reader?

Nicholas Basbanes 
On Paper
15 October, Knopf, $35 
448 pp.

Bibliophiles rejoice: everyone who has ever been picky about their choice of paper, can feel paper weight by touch, or knows their vellum from their parchment now has a go-to book, after decades of being relegated to subchapters of bibliography manuals. The big question, of course, is what kind of paper is Knopf printing this book on?

Linda Leavell
Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
22 October, FSG, $28
480 pp.

The first real biography of Moore in decades, and (apparently) the first ever to be written with the cooperation of the Moore estate—sure to be a huge breakthrough after years of biographies written without access to the complete Moore correspondence. Definitely the big biography of the year for anyone interested in modernism and/or poetry.

Pablo Neruda, ed. Ilan Stavans
All the Odes: A Bilingual Edition
22 October, FSG, $40
896 pp.

Neruda's odes have never been compiled in one volume outside of the omnibus Obras completas in Spanish—and even that apparently missed a few. Ilan Stavans (yes, that Ilan, dear summer-camp colleagues) has collected them, with English translations en face, for the first time. So time to fire up your high-school Spanish, grab a dictionary, and sit down with a cup of tea for some hours with the ode's third great master, heir to Horace and Keats.