On a tree

Allan Holdsworth RIP

Holdsworth, to me, was this strange, shimmering, imposing palisade around something I was not at peace enough with myself to do more than touch with my fingertips so that I could feel its electricity course softly through me, through my heart and loin and toes. I couldn't do more not because it was too intense, but because it was too delicate; as with Schoenberg, I knew that if I were to force my way through the plasma wall, I'd end up exactly where I had always been, in Midgard, numb with bold pleasures. His sci-fi synth was a door to some ethereal realm, but all my ham-ears could do was pass over the barrier without ever travelling to that other dimension. I was always sad about this, because--even more than with Schoenberg--I felt that this other dimension is where my soul wanted to eventually end up.

It's good at least then that he's left such a rich catalogue behind, because his is music much more in my future than my past. I hope he's having fun surfing that mercury rainbow.
On a tree

Various Facebook posts, collated (20 June 2016 - 23 Jan 2017)

Because I am so wise, and because I want to have various things I've said on Facebook (and others've said on my wall) in one place without navigating through ads, poor design, stupid things I've said (I'm mostly not wise at all), ephemera, and Trump posts, of FB, I'm archiving selected posts and comments below the fold. Reverse chronological order. Others referred to by their initials. I stop when I do because last Bloomsday I got excited and posted quotations from every episode of Ulysses, and the browser was already heaving away slowly enough without going further back.

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On a tree

Radiohead's 'Daydreaming' - musical analysis

I want to talk a bit about the mesmerising quality of the second single from Radiohead's new album. It's to some extent rhythmic, melodic and textural, but mainly harmonic; and is so in a really fascinating and fresh way.

The harmonic structure is basically really simple. It's in A minor with a little modulation to D minor in the second version of the progression (which is not played every time). The chords are basically triadic - although importantly not quite.

I'm not sure how to describe all of them; for what it's worth, if we think of them in a jazz way (which isn't even helpful insofar as this way of describing them isn't temporal enough, doesn't display the voice-leading enough), I think it's Asus4 - F6(sus2) - C(sus2)/E - Dm9/F and then Asus4 - F6(sus2) - C(sus2)/E - D7(add11) - G7(add11) with alterations. But these names are really complicated (and probably ungrammatical) and distort how much the chords are really simple, all just triads/6s/maj7s with small modifications that have wonderful effects on the gravity of the harmony. This is what I want to talk about.

So look at the first progression, the Asus4 to F6(sus2) or C(sus2)(sus4)/F. The d'' in the A wants to resolve, though at this point it's ambiguous between whether it wants to resolve to an A major or A minor. And resolve it does, to the C natural of A minor (but we still don't know what key we're in as we've had no B) - but as it does so the rest of the notes move down too, the treble notes down a step and the bass down a major third - so now we have this weird slightly polytonal thing going on, wherein the treble notes spell out the original chord again except down a step, suggesting a repeating pattern of resolutions to new dissonances (which is standard enough, in classical music anyway), whilst the bass unsettles this by descending 'too far.' In any case, though, a new 'suspension' is created: it could resolve in a number of ways, but one way is, if you read it as the C(sus2)(sus4)/F, by resolving down to a C/E. And the bass F does indeed resolve to an E; but the treble notes don't move, so now we have another sus chord, a C(sus2)/E, another lovely but unstable chord, which again wants to resolve in ways in which it does resolve, but again only as the resolution is scuppered by movements in the other parts. (And we still don't know what key we're in! - is this fourth chord unresolved because it's leading back to the tonic A minor, or is it itself a tonic with a dissonance to be resolved within the chord? Going back to the Asus4 is I think enough to eventually establish the key of A minor, though.)

It goes on in this manner: every chord is and resolves into an almost but not quite perfect and consonant chord (triad, 6, maj7).

So what? Well the title: the harmony is floating, suspended, defying gravity, but without either denying or ignoring gravity. It's tenderly floating, kissing the ground. It feels to me just like daydreaming - neither asleep nor awake, between places. It's virtuosic writing: I can imagine writing very dissonant music or very tonal music, but not a piece that so perfectly catches and sustains this shimmering distance to consonance.

We hear it in the B section too, but in a different way.

Here we switch to the tonic major, sort of. But take just the first chord. Is this an A major with the changing tones of d''-f#''? Or a D major with a c#'' échapée and then e''-c#'' changing tones? Or does the harmony flitter between the two chords? And what key are we in here? We're surely at least in A or D major - but then we move down to an F major chord (unless it's a D minor - we have again the ambiguity of the previous chord(s)). All the intervals are consonant and natural, but yet the music never settles into a key or even a chord. It's so soft and tender.

There's more, too: the 3/4 6/8 ambiguity (crotchets in the treble, dotted crotchets in the bass) is just unstable between two very stable time signatures, is itself almost but not quite stable. Yorke's vocal line hovers around the 3rds and 5ths of the chords, ensuring the harmonic ambiguity, and melodically has only a hint of movement. Rising up at the start of a phrase, before slowly falling again - then rising up again, just a bit higher, before slowly descending again. Texturally too, we have these wonderful Radiohead clouds of soft sustained chords and bright-but-soft metallic chimes. But the harmony is what really gets my gut.
On a tree

Emily Remler

I've been exploring music the last while, and found a musician I'm really fallen for, and who I think johnny9fingers will also fall for, if he doesn't know her already. So here he goes, because I don't know how less publicly to send her him.

On a tree

(no subject)

I don't know whether the reason I find it extremely hard to listen to this -

- but find it much easier to listen to this -

- is to do with the former being much more saccharine and seductive and adolescently emotional than the latter, or whether it's because my response to my what-for-lack-of-a-better-term-I'll-call-romantic loneliness for the last few years has been to close off my heart to the sensuous and delicate and personal love of the former. Listening to it I don't know if the revulsion I feel is from Hannigan's faux-cracked voice or my fear that it's cracking me. I'm terrified that if I ever somehow find myself where I can't retreat scared from the kind of emotion of the Hannigan, emotion unsoftened by layers of intellect (I'm good at intellect!) and self-awareness and tradition, I will fall into a sea of uncomprehending tears. And then afterwards, if the tears are cathartic and whoever made me fall apart is still there when I surface, I'll be able to listen to Hannigan's gentle melodies with ease and pleasure.

Or maybe the Hannigan really just is trite and adolescent, and if I ever find myself in a loving relationship again I'll find Hannigan just as painful. Fucked if I know.
On a tree


Welcome! opens Coleman, Welcome! to this building of great stone classically formed, its dignified and disdainful façade opening to silent cathedral halls of the white man's painted canvases, its doors reluctantly open to all rich or lucky enough to be able to pay pilgrimage since those doors first opened in October eighteen eighty-eight, an opening in honour of the Golden Jubilee of the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, Victoria, an opening paid for by the public subscription of those self-made men most indebted to Victoria's enlightened rule. Welcome! Coleman concludes, to empire!

Thus our attention was, at the outset, forcefully brought to the uncomfortable fact that the next two days of critical race theory, on the far left of the political spectrum, were taking place in a tribute to imperial hubris, and that the grand marble pillars through which we entered at the beginning of each day, and the delicate interior plasterwork to which our attention would occasionally lapse in a talk, were not innocently pleasant, but the fruit of empire, which is to say, the fruit of the very dehumanising racism we were there to criticise.

Perhaps Coleman's brief remarks were a bit pessimistic, though; for that conference last week did more to undermine the still-racist still-empire bequeathed Britain than any other conference I've ever attended, and I returned from it amazed, invigorated, inspired, illuminated, fevered; though also depressed, humbled, humiliated, paralysed.

Of course the conference was not the site of a new radical political party or revolutionary cell. But it demonstrated that philosophy is not an ivory-tower academics' idle conversation, but something which can dig into our concepts, arguments, Weltanschauungen, institutions, and reveal their shameful roots; not only did it demonstrate that philosophy is something that can do this, though, but at least suggested that, if philosophy does not do this, it does not merely neglect to do something it could or should do because that something is in itself important, but cannot succeed even as far as it goes. That is, a philosophy that neglects how it is ideologically structured cannot 'bracket' this and focus on questions unaffected by it: every answer it gives to every question, even the framing of every question, is poisoned by its self-ignorance.

This much is not new; but the conference also demonstrated how philosophy now can meet this challenge. Every talk did this, in its own way. Coleman's by highlighting how such intimate issues as sexual and romantic choices were morally and politically loaded but also how the arguments against this - arguments such as 'it's just personal preference whether I want to sleep with black men' - are not just poor, but racist, and hide their racism in a manner characteristic of much racism. Irvin's by making an argument so immediately relevant (the conclusion, briefly, that repeatedly watching videos of black men at whom U.S. police officers are asking you to look as demonstrating the black men's violence teaches us to consider black men as violent, entrenching racist (and, for the black community, dangerous) stereotypes) that you wanted to send it as a matter of urgency to television news channels so that they can stop broadcasting these videos. And so on. But more deeply, I saw how philosophy can be (has to be) both political and rigorous by the being-there of every single speaker and audience member. Dotson perhaps best exemplified it in her talk about the deep trauma suffered by her and so many other black women who are excluded from both implicitly male black activism and theory, and implicitly white feminism, and who by being excluded from both, as well as from the white patriarchy, are so alien to any established discourse that they are not only systematically discriminated against and suffer exceptionally high rates of suicide and murder, but cannot even - and cannot even, to stress again, for systemic reasons - get people to hear them, even when they're given a platform to speak. Dotson expressed the anguish, frustration and anger of this position in her talk, and gave it voice so well that I was moved close to tears. But everyone had this same fury; so there was no jargon, no academic bickering, no splitting hairs, no grandstanding, no bullshit. Shit is too fucked up: it focuses one's attention on what matters. There is no time for measuring intellectual stature to the centimeter, or for getting caught up in arcane theoretical niceties, or for turning one's eye from a mistake it takes bravery to face, or for confusing what's interesting for what's important.

I exaggerate, of course. Some talks were stronger than others; some questions were more pertinent than others; people were learning how to do this, and some were starting from a low baseline, and of course they faltered. But the atmosphere, which suffers (even needs) this, was alive: and the atmosphere is what most deeply struck me. Here is what a philosophy conference can be, must be.

There was a paralysing side, though, too, at least for me: I gave a talk at the conference, and without speculating as to whether it was any good (I wouldn't dare say that of any talk, let alone my own), I can certainly say I made some serious mistakes, and naturally mistakes that were not innocent, not the consequence of simply being an imperfect scholar, but mistakes which came from my blindnesses as basically the person for whose ease the status quo exists. I missed not subtleties but the black point of view, and fed into the very racism I wrote my paper to expose. I spent much of my reflecting on the conference wondering how I could do better, and I have yet to come up with an answer. What is certainly off the cards is ignoring urgent philosophy; that would just entrench the status quo. Also impossible is withdrawing; for whither might I withdraw? I could withdraw from the academy, but that's only one site for these issues. I cannot withdraw from life. So should I then engage full-bloodedly with critical race theory (and feminism, transgender philosophy, disability theory, and those standpoints of which I am still so culpably ignorant I cannot even think what they might be)? Only to fuck up again and again? And is every conference to which I am accepted a conference to which a member of a marginalised group (who can speak for themselves better than I can speak for them and over whom I will be accepted only because I benefit from the status quo) is not accepted? I see ways around this dilemma now that I didn't a few days ago, so I'm not entirely pessimistic; but the gate is strait, the way narrow, and I doubt I can keep to it.
On a tree


So having spent many hours slowly sailing through the Unterzee, captaining a ship entirely unfit for purpose, I finally saved up enough echoes to invest in a cargo ship, that I might be able to work the thin profit margins better and advance the game's well-written terror-ridden stories. It was huge and ever so ponderous, but it could carry massive quantities of mushroom-wine and clay men, and I began to build up a nice rhythm, returning to London just as the terror of the zee threatened to consume me. Indeed I became arrogant, and, armed with what I was sure would be enough foxfire candles, undertook to explore with my crew a shattered citadel on Godfall, an island formed of a collapsed stalactite so huge it poked through the surface of the water. The candles were not enough, and we returned to the ship crazed with fear. We tried to make it to a friendly island of guinea pig warriors, but paranoia took hold of the crew - or was it me - and they mutinied - or did I lose my mind and try to kill them? No matter. Somehow, by my hand or another's or a god's, I was killed, my brand new and hard-earned ship lost.

At which I point I swore a lot and almost left off playing the game altogether. My first character's skills and perks and nice shit weren't ones that I could pass down to my next character, and I found myself starting the new game almost from scratch, doing all the tedious early-game missions I hadn't even begun to miss. So I went into the save file and made myself a millionaire, to, you know, help me out in those early stages. (The game is good for its story-writing, I want to get to the end of the game and SEE some of that writing, not go over the first hour again and again!) I got myself a battleship, and it was brilliant. All my vexation and frustration melted away because I was the damn greatest.

I only did this briefly; when I shut down, though, I felt that same pride in my own greatness. Now unjustified: I made myself some dinner of eggs, mushrooms and toast that tasted fine but looked awful (and I used ketchup, which is cheating: good food doesn't need it); and it didn't last.

I named the ship after a poem:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul!"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
"Here is the march along these iron stones."
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
On a tree

Realism, the novel, Joyce, philosophy

The Ulysses reading group is still going strong (five weeks? left), and we've some of us agreed to continue on to Beckett's prose works afterwards. I'm also reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert in my own time (and have read a fair few contemporary novels recently, as well webcomics, poetry, graphic novels, etc.), reading and writing philosophy, and thinking as I'm always thinking about my own desire to do something like write a novel. What I've been bashing my head against a lot recently is the suggestion so insisted on by one of the reading group members that the literary tradition has singularly failed to respond to Finnegans Wake (with the exception (I think he thinks this) of Beckett).

The natural response, that I'm in the habit of making, is that not everyone has to be up to the kind of thing that Joyce is up to, all the formal experimentation, self-reflection, universal scope, musicality/poetry, density of meaning and so on that make the Wake so miraculous and important. One thing Joyce is doing is telling a story - does that mean all stories now have to 'respond' to the Wake? Surely not; so why then is it supposed to be different with regard to another thing Joyce is doing, viz., writing a novel?

I'm finding that response less convincing now, not least because I'm finding the novels I've been reading recently hamstrung by what they have not learnt from Joyce. It's most obvious in the little ways you notice in the reading: wasted words, unpleasing rhythms, meaningless names, missed jokes, etc. But what's really missing is of course deeper. I think it's that novels lie, and that Joyce uncovered this and showed us how to respond to it; and that to not respond to the Wake is to lie openeyedly, which is as bad in literature as it is in real life. I suppose the point I'm making here is close to the point Adam Kelly (in 'Dialectic of Sincerity' (2014)) says is one of the idées fixes of modernism: that the novel is trying to get deeply into something, to present it as it really is - be it someone's psychology or a social order or a conversation - but that the norms and conventions of the novel get in the way of its doing so by forcing what it's trying to capture into certain shapes, unnatural to what's being represented (and, in some cases I suppose, changing it). I agree with this, but I think there's something else too, perhaps simpler and perhaps more general. It's that everything in literature is significant; perhaps it's been so for a long time, perhaps Joyce made it so, perhaps it was always so but Joyce found new levels of significance, upset everything, so that no-one can ever again say, 'oh that's just always been that way'. Names were always significant, I suppose; but now even the language you write is significant, now even how you spell a word is significant, now even whether your writing is clear is significant.

And so I'm reading The Signature of All Things or whatever, and I'm enjoying it very much; but then something stands out at me, and I ask why it's the way it is; and time and again I'm disappointed: there's no reason for it being that way. But you can't make something insignificant once it's been made important as Joyce has so made it: now, the novel can only suggest a false significance, or can only pathetically attempt to hide a significance. Gilbert tells us that Prima shouted at Secunda, say; and that, Gilbert arrogantly or nervously insists, is final. But it's not final, because nothing is ever so simple. There's a divine iridescence to the encounter as there is to every encounter, something beyond any capturing which affects the situation and its reception by the various parties like a drug. Gilbert wants to stomp her foot and say that no there isn't - she's writing in a style or tradition that would have mentioned it if it was there, and she hasn't, so it isn't - but to say that is to lie, because the iridescence is ubiquitous. The Wake forces this question, and tried to answer it by making everything unclear and perspectival, and refraining from absolute statements, and trying to let the iridescence shine through with its multilingual dense musical punning. I won't say whether it's succeeded - I barely know what's happening most of the time - but at least it's faced up to the problem. What has since? The only thing that comes to mind is Lynda Barry's What It Is. I wonder if it's not a coincidence that this is a graphic novel: the combination of the two mediums - and such different mediums - perhaps allows for greater density.

Sometimes I can forgive the cowardice or laziness: Imogen Binnie's Nevada is just telling a story, but it's telling a story from a perspective that historically has been scandalously and tragically silent, and perhaps a perspective needs a realist novel before it can have a Wake. (Although Joyce is hardly heteronormative or even cisnormative!) And The Signature of All Things is not so bad as I've been suggesting (my choosing it as an example is perhaps slightly unfair, but it's what I'm reading at the moment): scenarios are returned to later and untold aspects told; but it's never remotely as serious or thorough as the Wake.

I wonder, by way of post-script, whether it's just novelists who have to face the Wake. I suppose poets do too, but I also get the sense (though I don't know poetry) that they've always faced it. I suppose it's the same for music; Beethoven and Bach are as rich as Joyce. How about philosophy? My feeling there is that philosophy strips away everything iridescent - 'ceteris paribus' is its cry - but whether this is legitimate or not I don't know. It is abstract enough that one might suppose that we can treat all else as equal: we don't need to imagine a world like we do in literature. But perhaps in becoming honest and accurate, philosophy that doesn't respond to Joyce also becomes irrelevant. I just don't know. I can only say that I don't feel any particular qualms in doing philosophy this way. This is unsatisfying, but I suppose one can only put one's ear to one's mind and listen as hard as one can for sounds of strain. I'll keep listening, and try to listen better.
On a tree


Tomorrow starts a reading group in which we read Ulysses alongside and in the order of The Odyssey (in order to see what happens!), so my weekend has been reading the first chapter of each. The translation of The Odyssey I have this time is Chapman's, and it's really astonishing. But Ulysses is something of a different order again. The life and richness of the characters and their interactions, the gentleness and humanity of Dedalus' ruminations along the shore, the delicacy and ease with which Joyce dances from internal monologue to conversation to remembrance to objective observation to allusion, and most of all the humour and sparkle through it all - your heart expands till it fills your chest and you can't bear keeping locked in all the mirth and Menschenliebe with which Joyce infects you. Unfortunately I was alone at home with no-one I could read it to (or just hug), and the Forty Foot is a bit far away. It's probably just as well. I was able to express a bit of it by going into university and practicing piano for a couple of hours, and by listening to Joanna Newsom's Ys, which has - or maybe I'm just projecting - something of the same openness and delight about it. But it's still all too much bottled up. Perhaps I need to join a Joycean dramatic group and learn it off by heart.

I read Ulysses for the first time when I was twenty or so, and I don't remember much about it except that I decided then too that I loved it like nothing else, despite not knowing what was going on most of the time. I'm not half as stupid now as I was then, so I hope that this time I'll get inside it as it deserves. (And this is my third time reading The Odyssey, but the first time not using Martin Hammond's fairly unmusical prose translation, and so far I'm finding myself 'moved' by it too, for the first time. Chapman's translation is really remarkable: you can see the attention he's paid to every detail, making every line somehow all of accurate, beautiful and dramatic.)
On a tree


I had a dream where I visited the Berliner Philharmoniker on a Saturday afternoon when they had loads of public musical education things going on, including Simon Rattle giving a violin masterclass that the public could look in on. (As I passed, I saw two cellists looking in through the glass trying to overhear and follow his instructions.) There were also a handful of old beat-up pianos outside that people could play, and even an old rubbish harpsichord! This last I played through its stuck keys and confusing multiple manuals, and got so caught up in it that I didn't notice the fire from a building across the road infect it until too late. When I noticed the flames licking up through the case I ran across to the nearest firefighter, who inexplicable had the TICKEST Dublin accent, and he reluctantly came over to save the harpsichord rather than the building. It was too late though. Sorry dream harpsichord! You died playing Bach!