Archive for ‘Music’

July 21, 2011

Language of Hell

Back in the nineties, National Public Radio had a music program called Schickele Mix, hosted by the composer, musicologist, and all-round funny guy Peter Schickele. The program was “dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal,” and it was true to its motto. I got my hands on a bunch of the episodes and I am going through them slowly.

Towards the end of one, Schickele is introducing the end of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. He’s explaining what is going on in the clip he’s about to play. (I wish I could play it for you, but you’ll have to settle for the transcript.)

“The demons bear Mephistopheles in triumph. And then the chorus sings ‘Tradioun Marexil fir trudinxé…’ what is this? What it is, according to these notes, it says while the demons bear mephistopheles away in triumph, singing a chorus in the language of Hell, invented by Swedenborg in the eighteenth century. So there you have it, Swedenborg apparently invented this langauge. And it’s a perfectly appropriate language to go to Hell with.”

WHHAAAAAAAAATT?! Swedenborg invented a language of Hell? Holy…!

Ok, so Emanuel Swedenborg was a (no prizes) Swedish mystic, theologian, philosopher, born in 1688 and died in 1772. He is one of those unknown historic figures who exerts more influence than he gets credit for. Both Immanuel Kant and William Blake were Swedenborgians before they broke with from him, and traces of his thought can be found in Poe, Emerson, Balzac and others. (Swedenborg at one point declared that the Messiah would arrive in the year 1757. After breaking with Swedenborgianism, William Blake ridiculed Swedenborg for such an exact prediction, but also couldn’t not notice that it was his own year of birth.)

Among other things, Swedenborg claimed that he could talk directly to Jesus, the saints, and could communicate with the dead. Kant himself collected testimonies from people who claimed that Swedenborg communicated with a dead family member. From these visits to the world of the dead, I imagine, the language of Hell.

I say I imagine because I have no idea where Schickele is getting this from. Not that I don’t believe him, but I haven’t been able to find anything online to verify this. I downloaded the complete libretto and score of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust in hopes of finding the note Schickele was reading on the air – to no avail. Nor have any of the links to Swedenborg’s life story yielded any comment about the invention of the language of Hell. I don’t know where I’m gonna find this…

In the meantime, I’m giving you a page and a fragment of Berlioz’s score, containing the words from the language of Hell, sung by the chorus.


July 20, 2011

Faith in Music

Recently, I met someone who made me attempt to listen to contemporary classical music. You know, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg…Some of it I like, but most of it goes over my head.

Then I visited a blog I had neglected for a while, waggish, and ran across this post. David Auerbach, who is ‘waggish,’ quotes Charles Rosen, a pianist and author:

It is not at all natural to want to listen to classical music. Learning to appreciate it is like Pascal’s wager: you pretend to be religious, and suddenly you have faith. You pretend to love Beethoven–or Stravinsky–because you think that will make you appear educated and cultured and intelligent, because that kind of thing music is prestigious in professional circles, and suddenly you really love it, you have become a fanatic, you go to concerts and buy records and experience true ecstasy when you hear a good performance (or even when you hear a mediocre one if you have little judgment.)
Berlioz detested the music of Bach: he did not want to enjoy it. Stravinsky despised Brahms, but came around to him at the end of his life. Not all composers are easy to love: Beethoven was more difficult than Mozart, Stravinsky harder than Ravel. Some composers, on the other hand, bring diminishing dividends over the years to their amateurs. One can revive a taste for Hummel or Saint-Saens, but it is not nourishing over a long period. (A little Satie for me goes a long way: I am never in a hurry to return to him.) Those amateurs who love a composer are the only ones whose opinion counts; the negative votes have no importance. The musical canon is not decided by majority opinion but by enthusiasm and passion. A work that ten people love passionately is more important than one that ten thousand do not mind hearing.

Waggish has this under the entry Elitist Credo, but I think the more interesting aspect is the idea that if you just put all the negative opinions aside and listen to the music enough, it will eventually mean something to you. So we’ll see…

July 1, 2011

The Clerkenwell Kid

The Retronaut posted some black and white photos of Clerkenwell, London. When Colin O’Brien was a child, in the 1950s, he had a window looking over an intersection that had a recurring traffic light problem.

The pictures reminded me (ok, not so much the picture as much as the idea of Clerkenwell from the past) of The Clerkenwell Kid, and this fantastic video somebody made for the song.

The band made an album as a soundtrack to a novel, the frontman, Stephen Coates blogs about London (under the name The Clerkenwell Kid!), and the music lends itself to great animation, like so and so.

Colin O’Brien‘s also has a great website, with more photos of Clerkenwell among many others.

June 24, 2011


I found this photo over at First Time User.

It is one of Eugène Atget‘s better known photos, taken in 1898.
I was reminded of a recording I made from my window in Paris in 2008. Three guys with brass instruments went by catching change people threw from windows.

A friend later identified the song as Historia de un Amor, which has it’s own story.

June 1, 2011

They’ll win: two working class novels in Ireland

The two “Paula Spencer” novels by Roddy Doyle are fantastic read. They are not Cormack McCarthy good, or David Foster Wallace good, but very good nonetheless.

I think I liked the first better: The Woman Who Walked into Doors is about Paula Spencer from her teenage years until the age of 39. She grows up in a real tough working class neighborhood in Dublin of the ’70s. Shortly after her wedding, her husband starts beating her. If you ever want a description of how one becomes and endures being an abuse victim, the dual mentality of loving and hating the abuser, this is your novel. In addition, Paula is an alcoholic, which is another version of that dual mentality, knowing it’s bad, wanting desperately to stop, yet wanting a drink more than anything.

In the second, eponymously called Paula Spencer, we meet Paula almost ten years on. She’s 47 (49 by the end of the book), and this one is all about putting one’s life back together after so much has been broken. And above all, just keeping a balance in life, not falling off. Recovery from addiction being that fine balancing act.
What Doyle gets right in the book is how Paula’s life, despite being overwhelmingly only about keeping sober and her family together, does not end there. She still has her sights set on the world outside her extended household. She gets a gig cleaning an arena in Dublin where the White Stripes play, so she gets into them. We go back to the White Stripes several times in the book. She particularly likes the song I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart.

In general Doyle embeds Paula very well in Ireland of the mid naughts of the twenty first century. All kinds of contemporary events are mentioned. One of which, I had to mention here. In the first book we learn that she paid for her older son, John Paul to get a Liverpool F.C. tattoo on his arm. He goes missing after becoming a heroin addict in that one; In Paula Spencer, the second book, she’s reconnecting with him. They’re sitting at a cafe, talking. This transpires.

The tattoo is still there, on his arm. The Liverpool thing. She paid for it years ago, for his fourteenth birthday. She thought it would work. She’d give him the tattoo and he’d forgive her and lover her for ever.
She points at his arm.
– D’you still like them, John Paul?
He doesn’t look down.
– They’re on the way back.
– Is that right? she says.
She’s not sure what he means.
– I’m thinking of going to Istanbul, he says.
– Why?
He smiles. She wants to grab his face.
– Champions League final, he says.
– Liverpool are in it? she says.
– Yeah.
– Ah, lovely. In Istanbul?
– Yeah.
– What if you go and they don’t win? It’d be terrible, so far away.
– They’ll win, says John Paul. 

(notice how wild the commentary gets)

May 27, 2011


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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 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?!

March 14, 2011

Sub City New York

“It’s a short film – a visual poem – about that moment in New York when you emerge from the subway and find yourself in a new and sometimes unexpected world.”


For me, it was Satie’s music that clinched it.