Thursday, November 20, 2014

Strange deaths of some French composers

Odilon Redon: "À Edgar Poe" (1882)
The Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (collaborator with Molière, court composer of Louis XIV, the Sun King) died of gangrene. In those days—the late 17th century—before the development of the modern symphony orchestra, large ensembles kept time not under a conductor's baton, but rather by having someone stamp out the beat with a large staff to the side. Lully had been doing exactly this when he struck his foot so hard it apparently bled, got infected, and killed him. (Lully had declined to have it amputated.) He was 54.

For a long time, it was believed that Charles-Valentin Alkan (a composer and piano virtuoso of the same generation as Chopin and Liszt) died when he accidentally brought a bookcase down on himself as he reached for a Talmud on the very top shelf. However, this seems to be apocryphal: apparently it may have been an umbrella stand, not a bookcase, that was found on top of his body. He was 75.

Ernest Chausson—student of Franck, friend of the symbolist painter Odilon Redon—died when his bicycle collided with a brick wall at the bottom of a hill. There is not much more to say about the matter. He was 44.

All three are worth listening to, but it's Chausson's premature death that strikes me as the worst loss for music. Here's his arresting, yearning Poème, op. 25, for violin and piano:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Commonplace book: Mermaids singing

William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Nymphs Bathing. Oil on canvas.
57 x 82 ½ in. c. 1878. Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA
The trope of mermaids—well, something like mermaids—is an old one, going back in some form all the way to Homer. But it's hard to judge what is and isn't a mermaid. Are the Sirens mermaids? Certainly they have some kind of relationship with mermaids. Are the friendly Nereids mermaids? Are Sirens like Nereids? It's a confusing issue. What does seem clear is that, by the 20th century, to invoke mermaids seems to draw on a wide range of myths and legends, so that when Eliot invokes the "mermaids singing," it calls to mind a range of topoi far beyond the Donne poem that Wimsatt and Beardsley cite in their famous essay. Indeed, given what they're trying to argue, picking on the mermaid line in "Prufrock" may have been the worst possible evidence.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Song for the Century

Ypres, Flanders, Belgium.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they speak
To an apathetic grave;
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
—W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939" 
I don't know why Remembrance Day has affected me so much more this year than the past two years I've lived in Britain, or the many Veterans' Days before in the U.S. The omnipresent poppies have something to do with it, and with the difference between the two countries. In America, it's only the most mindful who really observe the day—the veterans, their families, the pious, patriotic, and civically engaged. In Britain, the poppies (such publicly crimson tokens) are everywhere: on lapels, on vehicles, in shops. There is a way to show remembrance together—not necessarily or merely of the nation, but of war itself. America has no such way. The closest you could come would be a flag pin, which says something different.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Some November 7ths

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Madame de Staël en Corinne.
1809. Oil on canvas, 140 x 118 cm. Musée d'Art et
d'Histoire, Geneva .(Wikipedia.)
Today, November 7th—an ordinary day, like any other—I thought it would be fun to look back at a few other "ordinary" November 7ths as seen through the letters and diaries of a few famous writers. Read on for Samuel Pepys's art-buying habits; a glimpse of Madame de Staël's passionate love affairs; Dorothy Wordsworth tending her sick brother William; and Virginia Woolf plotting the early stages of The Waves...

Monday, November 3, 2014

Audio Interview Special!: Noam Hassenfeld of Three Thousand Rivers

Brooklyn band Three Thousand Rivers: (left to right) Warren
Loegering (bass), Jack Cashion (saxophone), Noam Hassenfeld
(guitar, vocals), Nick Demirjian (drums), Joshua Lutz (guitar)

Today we have a new kind of thing for Loose Signatures: audio! Listen to my interview with Noam Hassenfeld, singer/songwriter of the awesome up-and-coming Brooklyn band Three Thousand Rivers, on their new EP, Like a What?—with painstaking audio editing by, well, me.

This originally aired on the Breakfast Show of Oxide Radio, Oxford University's student radio station, which I now host/present most Saturday mornings during Oxford terms from 10 a.m. to 12 noon GMT, and you can listen to online (and only online) at

Also, you can check out Like a What? in full on iTunes, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud—and see the band's website, I highly recommend that you start listening to TTR with their song "A Still, Small Voice" (and defy you not to keep coming back for more). Listen to the interview through SoundCloud below: