Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘music’

Closing time

Leonard Cohen is dead. Not an untimely or tragic end. But an end.

I never felt like he knew the secret of life. Not even that he knew reasons for hope. But maybe that he was pointing out something head intuited about how to live without hope. (Now may be a good time to go back and read Camus…)

I’ve been listening to his music a lot in the past few weeks. It suited my mood and, I thought, the mood of the times. I first encountered the song Everybody Knows in the soundtrack of the 1990 film Pump up the Volume, and was so impressed by it that I followed the credits to find out who was responsible for the song. Leonard Cohen. Never heard of him.

In those pre-amazonian days it was not an easy matter to find an unknown recording. I went to several record stores before I found a greatest hits CD, which give me my first hearing of Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Who By Fire, and so many more. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. Whereas people argue about whether Bob Dylan’s songs are poetry, with Leonard Cohen it’s not entirely clear whether his songs are really songs. And it’s clear that he was never sure himself, and he always seemed somewhat abashed by the fact, but as long as people thought they were, and wanted to hear him sing them, he’d oblige them.

I eagerly went to share my discovery with a fellow graduate student and folk music enthusiast. I played Suzanne for him. From the first bars he said, “That’s Leonard Cohen. He’s Canadian.” My friend was Canadian. I had no idea that there was such a gap between US and Canadian pop culture experience. I’ve since learned that Cohen has been hugely famous all over Canada and Europe, particularly the UK, since the 1970s.

Leonard Cohen’s words and music have accompanied my life ever since. With my partner of many years we bonded, early on, over noticing that we were sharing a snack of tea and oranges. A few years ago I was amazed that he had started producing albums and performing again. Beautiful new songs — the lyrics all his, the melodies mostly his collaborators, something he’s been doing since the 1980s. An unflinching openhearted reckoning with life and death, with the 20th century in all its horror and beauty. Religion, psychology, and eroticism. Jewish and Buddhist and Christian. Texts like

Show me the place, help me move away this stone.
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone.
Show me the place where the word became a man.
Show me the place where the suffering began.

and

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen,
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their story
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring,
It was almost like the blues.

But I always come back to the Leonard Cohen lines I first heard:

Everybody knows the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows that he fight was fixed
The poor stay poor and the rich get rich
That’s how it goes.
Everybody knows.

Everybody knows the boat is leaking
Everybody knows the captain lied
Everybody’s got this sinking feeling
like their father or their dog just died.
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
and a long-stemmed rose.
Everybody knows.

The NY Times has posted a link to a 1995 profile that includes this quote

I’ve always found theology a certain kind of delightful titillation. Theology or religious speculation bears the same relationship to real experience as pornography does to lovemaking. They’re not entirely unconnected. I mean, you can get turned on. One of the reasons that they’re both powerful is that they ignore a lot of other material and they focus in on something very specific. In these days of overload, it’s very restful to know, at last, what you’re talking about.

And maybe just one more verse of Everybody Knows:

Everybody knows that you love me, baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet
but there’s so many people you just had to meet
without your clothes.
Everybody knows.

And from Closing time:

It’s partner found and it’s partner lost
There’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops
It’s closing time…

I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can’t say much has happened since
But closing time.

Dylan’s Nobel

I was just reading this article by Stephen Metcalf about why Bob Dylan shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was surprised at how vehemently I disagreed. Metcalf writes: genius, sure, but not literature.

The distinctive thing about literature is that it involves reading silently to oneself. Silence and solitude are inextricably a part of reading, and reading is the exclusive vehicle for literature.

Ryu Spaeth at The New Republic writes

If the Nobel Prize in Literature wants to recognize a musician, then it should create an award for music.

I’m not sure if the Nobel Prize in Literature has enough of an independent existence that it can create a new award, but I understand the point. I just disagree.

It’s kind of weird the way the Nobel prizes have taken on this aura of pre-eminence, but the Nobel committees havethem have responded to this cultural role by expanding their remit. People win Nobel prizes in medicine for studying worms, in chemistry for things like DNA repair, in physics for solving equations, and in peace for stirring up trouble over human rights (or global warming). If literature is about what people do with words, then it must be about those who have done traditional things exceptionally well (and Winston Churchill must be included in that group) but also those who have expanded the possibilities of literary forms. Jean-Paul Sartre won the prize. So did Elfriede Jelinek and Samuel Beckett.

People complain that he shouldn’t win the prize because his texts aren’t exactly poetry. But maybe that’s the point. He opened up a new way for people to express themselves in language. The fact that the texts work their magic in alliance with music is not a detriment. No one ever said that Harold Pinter didn’t deserve the prize because his texts depend on actors to bring them to life.

Utility of the Devil

I very much enjoyed reading Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, on behavioural economics and his own role in its development. It occurred to me that the basic lessons of that soi disante science may be summarised by a variant on a famous Rolling Stones song:

You can’t always know what you want…

But if you don’t try, most of the time

You just might find you want what you know.

The Times racebaits

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.

“Serving the purposes of the Israeli apartheid and colonial regime”

The American Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu has been expelled from a Spanish music festival, for refusing to issue a statement in support of a Palestinian state. Apparently such loyalty oaths are required of suspect persons, such as Jews. His silence, they said, serves “the purposes of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime”.

This buttresses the view that BDS has a significant dollop of antisemitism in its ideological matrix, even if not every BDS supporter is antisemitic (and not everyone motivated partly by antisemitism is entirely or even consciously motivated by antisemitism).

This takes me back to 2007, when one UK academic union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (since melded into the University and Colleges Union (UCU)) couldn’t find any more relevant challenge to higher education in the UK than a boycott of Israeli academics who do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from Israeli “apartheid policies”.

I immediately recognised a problem: What is the appropriate form for expressing such dissociation? And how would we test whether the self-criticism was sincere, or merely careerist dissimulation. After all, we wouldn’t want crypto-Zionists sneaking in to British universities and scientific conferences, infecting them with the taint of racism and colonialism. Leaping into the breach, I composed a form to enable the aspiring good Israeli to have his anti-Zionist bona fides tested and confirmed by the proper authorities.

Annie Get Your Prior

I was reading Sharon McGrayne’s wonderful popular (no, really!) book on the history of Bayesian statistics. At one point it is mentioned that George Box wrote a song for a departmental Christmas party

There’s no theorem like Bayes’ Theorem
Like no theorem I know…

A bit later we read of Howard Raiffa and Robert Schlaifer singing

Anything frequentists can do, Bayesians do better

(More or less… the exact text is not reproduced.) So it seems the underappreciated role of Irving Berlin in the development of Bayesian thought has yet to be adumbrated. Perhaps researchers will some day uncover such hits manqués as “How High is the Bayes Factor?”, “I’m Dreaming of a Conjugate Prior”, or even “Bayes Bless America”.

Leonard the Priest

I’m just listening to the newest Leonard Cohen album, Popular Problems. I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic Jewish imagery that runs through his career, but increasing in recent years. For instance, in this new song “Almost Like the Blues”:

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen.
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their stories
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring.
It was almost like the blues.

One thing that immediately stood out for me was this (I think) entirely original poetic trick of using “the Gypsies and the Jews” to signify the Holocaust. It works, because what else do Gypsies and Jews have in common, but it’s also an intriguingly oblique way of referencing it. And that leads into what feels like an allusion to the function of Holocaust stories to arouse feelings of pathos and high seriousness, but fundamentally serving as a kind of perverse entertainment. (To get the full impact you need to hear the leer that creeps into his voice on “It was good”; a good example of how performed poetry can go beyond the written word. And given the limited range of Cohen’s voice, never very flexible even in his salad days, this really is performed poetry more than singing.)

Bert and the Duke

I just read Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington. The most prominent theme of the book — beyond Teachout’s efforts at a clear-eyed appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of Ellington’s music — is an elucidation of Ellington’s, to put it charitably, magpie tendencies. Throughout his career, Ellington compensated for his own deficiencies — little talent for melody, inability to write for strings, extreme procrastination — by poaching the inventions of his sidemen, often with minimal compensation and little or no credit. This tendency reached its acme in Ellington’s wholesale subordination of Billy Strayhorn, who was almost completely subsumed into the Ellington persona.

This reminded me of another fascinating biography that I read many years ago, John Fuegi’s Brecht & Co.  That book portrayed Bertolt Brecht as a kind of literary parasite, who seduced brilliant women and enslaved them to write plays for him. Just to mention one of the most egregious examples, Elisabeth Hauptmann appeared on the original publication as co-author of The Threepenny Opera — even there, only as the “translator” of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with “German treatment by Bertolt Brecht” — though almost certainly a substantial majority of the text is by her. Brecht later sold off the international rights entirely on his own, under his own name. Similarly, Mother Courage and The Life of Galileo  were cowritten with Margarete Steffin — and again, her contribution is not minimal, the same not being entirely clear for Brecht himself — but are invariably described as works of Brecht.

These sound like clear cases of abuse, they seem to undermine the stature of the great artist — perhaps worse in Brecht’s case, where erotic seduction was being abused as well, and the weak social position of women vis-à-vis intellectual property. And yet… it’s clear that both Ellington and and Brecht produced brilliant, world-changing work with a variety of collaborators, while none of the collaborators produced great work apart from the master. (Billy Strayhorn is an interesting possible counterexample, in part because Ellington’s thefts from him were so extensive — some of the “collaborations” were entirely Strayhorn’s work, or almost so — and in part because the collaboration with Ellington subsumed almost his entire career.) Elisabeth Hauptmann, at least, always denied that she had been ill-used by Brecht.

Part of the problem may be with the romantic image we have of the lone genius. As Fuegi’s title suggests (perhaps ironically), the image of the “workshop” may be more appropriate to some — perhaps most? — artistic creation. There is a special skill required to recognise the flashes of creativity in others and shape them to a whole — as Ellington did (Strayhorn excepted) — or to provide a framework to which creative artists can contribute their own genius wholeheartedly. This was the job of the master of a Renaissance workshop, and it’s not clear that we should think less of “Brecht” or “Ellington” as creative artists, to know that these names are, at least in part, fronts for a collective. While they were alive it would have been good to redirect some of the material rewards — though Ellington, at least, directed everything he had to maintaining his orchestra — but now all that remains is esteem for the work and its creator, however the latter is defined.

Liverpool accent

One of the things most migrants to Britain suffer from — regardless of whether English (of some flavour) is their native language — is a sort of dialect-colourblindness, the inability to recognise regional and class distinctions of accent and dialect. I can now more or less identify “northern” speakers, London working class, urban midlands dialects, and the accent that people refer to as “posh”, as distinct from the fairly neutral accent of BBC announcers, and I already knew the Scottish and Northern Irish accents before I came. I had to learn for my permanent residency “Life in the UK” test that the Liverpool dialect is called Scouse, while the Newcastle speech is Geordie, but I can’t recognise the difference between those and Manchester or Yorkshire speech respectively. And the important thing is, even if you can pick the right one out of a lineup, you don’t have the proper associations with them. Thus, I was completely unaware that northern accents are scorned, and many northerners are defensive about the way they are perceived. I’ve learned to recognise these accents, but the associations that British people bring to them are purely abstract facts to me. Similarly the various lower-class urban (see e.g. Scouse, above) and rural dialects.

All of this is prelude to an extraordinary comment that I came across in reading Mark Lewinsohn’s The Beatles: Tune In, the first volume of a projected 3-volume biography of The Beatles. (more…)

The long arm of the gay mafia

I was amused by the intimations that cropped up in reports on Brendan Eich’s dismissal as CEO of Mozilla that he had been (in the words of one comedian) “whacked by the gay mafia”. Now, the “X mafia” is a standard lazy joke, and the more nonviolent the image of the group whose mafia this is supposed to be the better the appeal to those whose livelihood depends on a steady stream of cheap laughs. But my first reaction was that for gay people to be accused of mafia tactics must be a marker of progress — people don’t like the mafia, but they respect its power! Surely the notion that gay people are too powerful would have been a difficult concept to formulate until very recently.

I was wrong, at least as regards the entertainment industry. In Terry Teachout’s fascinating new biography of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington is quoted as saying that his father was unconcerned about Billy Strayhorn’s homosexuality.

But Mercer also reports that Ellington believed in the existence of “a Faggot Mafia… He went on to recount how homosexuals hired their own kind whenever they could, and how, when they had achieved executive status, they maneuvred to keep straight guys out of the influential positions.”

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