Archive for April, 2011

April 28, 2011

Two Records

“People used to make records
As in a record of an event…”
Ani DiFranco

In 1857 Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville obtained a patent for the phonautograph. Scott was a printer and bookseller and was interested in perfect stenography. He was looking for a way to record conversations without omissions. In other words, he imagined his phonautograph, as the word implies, as an audio self-writing machine. It never occurred to him that the process could be reversed and the record of the conversation turned back into sound. (Other people were thinking about this, but the world would have to wait for Edison for this to become reality.)
The technology to turn the records the phonautograph made back into sound did not exist until 2008. This is Scott de Martinville recording himself singing Au Clair de la Lune in 1860:

Sometime in this century, Katie Paterson came up with an ingenious art project. She recorded the sound made by three glaciers in Iceland (Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull). The sound was pressed into three records made of melted and refrozen ice from each respective glacier. And the ice records were played on turn tables until they melted.

Literally, the sound of the glacier ice melting and moving:

April 22, 2011


(from Looking for the Magic)

April 15, 2011

Beethoven needs football

I picked up the book The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven by Antony Hopkins, but it is entirely too technical for me.
So I skimmed through it (just looking at the pictures, if you will). Towards the end, where he is discussing the last movement of the Ninth symphony, you know the one with the Ode to Joy and the chorus and all the voices, I ran across the following passage.

In due course the violins join in, taking the tune up a further octave while the supporting parts flow in ever more liberated counterpoint. On the fourth repetition of the tune the full orchestra (less trombones) proclaims it in triumph, forming a veritable procession which breaks up into a happy but confused throng after the end cadence. Second violins and violas provide the bustle of the excited crowd while the upper wind extend the melody with the sort of

| ♩.  ♪ ♩
la-la —  la-la

refrain that happy people might well sing spontaneously. (If the idea seems absurd, consider the uncanny way in which a crowd of thousands of football supporters will, without any apparent direction, go through a repertoire of songs such as ‘You’ll never walk alone’, ‘When the saints go marching in’, ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’.)

That’s right: you need football to explain Beethoven.

April 14, 2011

Anatomy of a Film

Otto Preminger made a terrible movie in 1959. It’s called Anatomy of a Murder. The plot has holes, the motivations of characters are non-existent, and it’s entirely too long. However, the photography in the film is beautiful, the acting is great and the music was composed by Duke Ellington.
The Duke even makes a cameo, playing four hands with Jimmy Stewart in one scene.

Jimmy Stewart plays a former district attorney who takes a case defending a man for murder. While the man is in prison, Jimmy has to deal with the man’s wife. This is her, interrupting Jimmy’s and Duke’s playing.

Played by Lee Remick, when Jimmy first meets her, she’s quite the seductress.

What you don’t see underneath those sunglasses is a black eye she got from a local bar owner who beat and raped her. Which is why her husband, a lieutenant in the army (played by Ben Gazzara), killed the man. So he’s on trial.

Jimmy has this man, Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) to help him out. He’s not so great with laying off the booze.

And he has big city attorney up against him. A real shark, Assistant State Attorney General, Claude Dancer, played by (who else?!) George C. Scott.

Jimmy turns Laura Manion from a temptress into a respectable looking housewife.

But can he save her from Dancer?

Or will she crack under interrogation and send her husband to prison?

Can you do it, Jimmy?!

April 13, 2011

In a Word…

An interview with the authors of a new book called Sacred Trash brought my attention to the Cairo Geniza.
The Cairo Geniza is a collection of some 280,000 documents found in the genizah, or hiding place, of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in what is now Cairo. Because the documents were written in Hebrew, which is considered God’s writing, they could not be destroyed. They were simply put away, although some were buried in the Jewish cemetery. The documents date back to 870 AD. The last additions to the genizah were made in the 1880s, right before Western scholars got their hands on the treasure and blew the whole thing wide open.

From the articles I’ve read and the interview I heard, it seems that the story of the Cairo Geniza is always told through the focal point of the moment in 1896. That is when Solomon Schechter, a Romanian born Jewish scholar (who would later become one of the founding figures of Conservative Judaism in America) learned about the genizah, the hiding place, and brought it to the attention of the West. The Geniza, meaning the collection of documents, is now broken up among several European and American libraries, with the majority of it in Cambridge, where Schechter worked.

The documents contain everything from medieval Jewish poetry, tracts written by famous scholars, letters to the elders of the community, to legal documents and private letters. They were all written in Hebrew script, but most are in Aramaic. And since the documents cover trade with other communities, there are documents from Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Sicily, and there is mention of Morocco, Rouen in France, Kiev in Ukraine and India.

Not only have scholars found the writings of Maimonides and Saadia Gaon, both rabbis and philosophers, and the poetry of Yehuda Halevi, but the Geniza mentiones 35,000 individuals, 200 prominent families, 450 professions.

…in a word, an entire civilization.

April 12, 2011

Gendered Knockers

Over at deconcrete I read about Persian gendered knockers on old doors.

The two knockers make different sounds, letting the person on the inside know the gender of the person at the door, determining, in turn, whether a man or woman opens the door. Their shapes are also reminiscent of the shape of genitalia: one a curvy opening, the other a straight shaft.

I wish I knew what the inscription above the door said.

April 11, 2011

Le Sacré Corps

The US National Library of Medicine has something they call The Visible Human Project® (also on Wiki). In 1993 they took the body of an executed criminal from Texas, Joseph Jernigan, to try and better visualize human anatomy.
The doctors encased the body in a gelatin and water mixture and then froze it to stabilize it. It was then “cut” into 1,871 sections, 1 millimeter apart and each part was photographed to create a detailed set of anatomical visualizations.

Croix Gagnon, an American artist, put the “slices” together to create this video. (More about the art project after the break.)

Now the reason I put the words cut and slices in scare quotes is that neither of them are exactly right. The body frozen in the gelatin and water was ground down millimeter by millimeter, in a way that completely, entirely destroyed the specimen. The video is not only an accurate visualization of the body, but a sped up record of its destruction.

If ever there was an example of the potentially destructive nature of the curious human gaze, this is it.

Croix Gagnon created that video as part of his art project 12:31. (12:31am is the time Joseph Jernigan was executed.) Along with the photographer Frank Schott, he created “light paintings” of the entire cadaver “to put it back together.” (Click the link for all the photos.)

Perhaps not quite bringing him back to life, but turning an entirely destroyed specimen of a cadaver back into something sacred: the body.

April 10, 2011

If the History of the American Sentence Were a John Ford Movie…

Back in January, Adam Haslett reviewed Stanley Fish’s guide to writing called How To Write a Sentence. The article celebrates “[t]hat ability – to graft theme into syntax – [which] makes great writing a pleasure to listen to,” and contains the following brilliant sentence:

If the history of the American sentence were a John Ford movie, its second act would conclude with the young Ernest [Hemingway] walking into a saloon, finding an etiolated Henry James slumped at the bar in a haze of indecision, and shooting him dead.

April 6, 2011

With Elegance and Euphoria

This is a 1:500 model of a roller coaster by Julijonas Urbonas.

It is not your average roller coaster. The name of the model is Euthanasia Coaster. It is “engineered to humanely – with elegance and euphoria – take the life of a human being.”

“Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death.” Cause of death is cerebral hypoxia, a lack of oxygen supply to the brain.

For a detailed description of the ‘experience’ of riding this coaster, which Urbonas calls the celebration of “the limits of the human body but also the liberation from the horizontal life…”, you can visit Urbonas‘ site.

April 4, 2011

Don Quixote on the Farthest Shore

Over at Paris Review’s site, Jonathan Gharraie wrote an article at once short and rambling about an exhibit of Arion Press’ illustrated edition of Don Quixote, complete with quotes from the translator Edith Grossman and illustrator William T. Wiley. I say at once short and rambling because it is not clear what the article is: a review of the exhibit or of the edition, an interview or Gharraie’s musing on the word quixotic and other subjects.

illustration by William T. Wiley

Nevertheless, the illustrations seem lovely, so I am sharing a couple of them here. It also affords me the opportunity to share with you Edith Grossman’s lecture Translating Cervantes. I read this about a year ago and remember the woman’s passion for literature just bursting through.

illustration by William T. Wiley

But going back to Gharraie’s article. Don Quixote was written when the printing press and books as we know them were still relatively new things in the world. It is accepted wisdom that it is (among other things) a book about books. Gharraie points out that [f]our hundred years after Cervantes’s masterpiece emerged, we now stand on the farthest shore of the printing age. And this is significant now because we have some idea of how a world without books might work. Books as we know them and bibliophiles are fast becoming quaint. If the man from La Mancha were alive today, he would himself most likely be one of those people who rails against iPads, Nooks, Kindles and other e-readers in favor of musty rooms overcluttered with books.

Gharraie is more reasonable: [w]e at least know that we would continue to read. This blog alone suggests as much. As do the sleek, gray tablets you see every morning on the subway. But I intend no jeremiad against technology. If anything, I would rather have it both ways: the book and the blog; the lavish endeavor of the lovingly prepared new edition and the take-out convenience of the virtual text.