I mentioned before the peculiarly awkward and unfunny humour that bursts out in the Times when establishment interests are challenged (standing out particularly sharply in contrast to the usually professional and intelligent demeanour of that particular rag). Yesterday one of their columnists, Patrick Kidd, commented on Jeremy Corbyn’s first Labour Party conference speech. He noticed that two illustrious authors quoted in the speech were BLACK, and decided, giving him an appropriately racially charged metaphor for mocking the Reds:
It certainly felt as if he had taken us deep into the night with a series of unconnected riffs on a general jazz theme of “let’s be kinder to each other.” This was Jeremy Corbyn playing Miles Davis in the uncut version of Kind of Red, with contributions from Ben Okri on drums and Maya Angelou spanking the double bass.
One other point: I’ve noticed that lazy newspaper columnists have this trick of taking a stupid cliché that anyone would recognise as such — a disjointed speech is like jazz, ho hum, what is this, 1958? I think that’s when the Times was spreading fear of contamination by jazz-inflected, negro-influenced leftists, and youth contaminated by contact with racial inferiors — and inflates it to a shaggy-dog story with all kinds of extra detail and verbiage. Unless you’re SJ Perelman, it doesn’t become original this way, only more embarrassingly hackneyed.
I downloaded and listened to the audiobook This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture. The author is Iain Anderson, and the language and structure seem like those of a slightly rewritten doctoral dissertation. It’s pretty interesting as a source for the politics — particularly racial politics — of jazz in the late 50s and early 60s, and it held my interest for the 5 hours I needed to listen to it at double speed. But what really fascinated me was the reader’s voice. The reader is listed as Paul Steven Forrest, but I can hardly believe that this is a human voice. (Indeed, this is the only book that this name has been assigned to as reader.) The sentence intonations are much too regular, and seem to ignore any cues related to the meanings of words. Some reasonably common English words — at least, common enough in academic jargon — such as “diaspora” are systematically mispronounced, but without any hesitation such as you might expect from a human reader stumbling over an unfamiliar word. Similarly, non-English words were completely botched, but without apparent self-consciousness.
On the other hand, if Paul Steven Forrest is in truth the pseudonym for a computer-generated voice, it’s remarkably good, at least to someone who has not been following progress in speech generation over the past decade. It took me an hour of listening before it struck me that something was off about the voice, and while it started to bug me, it never became unbearable.
One linguistic phenomenon that fascinates me more than it probably should is when a word or phrase can have opposite meanings in different contexts. Like the English word cleave (e.g. Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife”, as opposed to a meat cleaver.)
I recently watched Ken Burns’s controversial 15-hour documentary Jazz. One segment, focusing on Miles Davis’s turn to fusion and electronica, was titled “Tennis Without a Net”. This quotes the critic Gerald Early, who appears in the segment, but of course refers back to Robert Frost’s bon mot about free verse (“tennis with the net down”). The implication is that music is a game, whose spectators are judging above all the players’ adroitness in accomplishing inherently simple things under complicated artificial constraints. Free jazz has also been tagged with this undead witticism.
So playing “without a net” means making things too easy, too safe, since no one can say if you’ve gotten it wrong. But “performing without a net” can also mean taking exceptional risks, as in the title of the Grateful Dead’s 1990 album “Without a Net”. There the metaphor is the circus acrobat’s net, and the implication is that the band’s free improvisation is particularly risky, since they are performing live without the support of a predetermined musical structure.
And this reminds me again of Natalia Cecire’s fascinating attack on statistics as an “inherently puerile discipline”, because its highest priority is “commitment to the rules of the game”. (I should make clear, as I argued before, I disagree with Cecire’s opinion of statistics, but I find the framework she lays on it both creative and useful.) Are statisticians making their research too safe by performing with the net of mathematical methodology, or are humanists like Cecire setting themselves a too-easy task by playing with the net of rigorous quantitative analysis down?