Writing as music: unexpected economist addition

In the previous post I gave a few examples of superior prose, to the point where it conjured up music, in my mind at least. Who would have thought that economics, a notably dry specialism, would be associated with a sparkling example of this (for which I am in debt to Paul Johnson):

How can I convey to the reader, who does not know him, any first impressions of this extraordinary figure of our time, this siren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity? Mr Lloyd George is rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings; he is an instrument and a player at the same time which plays on the company and plays on them too; he is a prism which collects light and distorts it and is most brilliant if the light comes from many quarters at once; a vampire and a medium in one*

Like much great poetry, I’m not entirely sure that can I decipher all the meanings and allusions in that short paragraph, but it is quite brilliant. The author? None other than John Maynard Keynes (in Essays in Biography), the King of Bretton Woods and undoubtedly the most abused economic theorist of the 20th century, in terms of his message being distorted – like Lloyd George’s light.

You may pick your own musical parallel, for me its crammed and elusive vituperation is definitely Berliozian, with a touch of Ravel’s glassy menace.

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Keynes, also known as an economist

 

* something of Tony Blair in this description, I would say

 

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Writing as music

It takes more than the ordinary journalistic literary skills to come up with an opener like this:

Ithe geography of the arts, Canadian is to American as Irish is to English and Jewish is to everyone. Social imitators by proximity, but intellectual ironists by distance, Canadians are the same as Americans, but more so—more obviously stranded in the wilderness because there is so much of it and so few of them, and more similar in politics to the Old World than the New. Their Liberals are centrists, not leftists ashamed of their leftism, and their Conservatives are even Tories.

…a gem of taut prose, I’d say,  setting up a sharp critique of the (overpraised) Saul Bellow, by Dominic Green, whose taste also runs to some of the best jazz. The paragraph’s formal interlocking and anticipatory pulse has a little in common with the technical facility and improvisatory chops of a Dave Brubeck.

Or, in a complete change of mood,  the closing paragraph of the first chapter of Dombey and Son. In fact, the very last line in it:

..the little voice, familiar and dearly loved, awakened some show of consciousness, even at that ebb. For a moment, the closed eye lids trembled, and the nostril quivered, and the faintest shadow of a smile was seen.

‘Mama!’ cried the child sobbing aloud. ‘Oh dear Mama! oh dear Mama!’

The Doctor gently brushed the scattered ringlets of the child, aside from the face and mouth of the mother. Alas how calm they lay there; how little breath there was to stir them!

Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar within her arms, the mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world.

To be repeated in a sad variation, at the end of chapter 16, when the Son, Paul, dies:

‘Now lay me down,’ he said, ‘and, Floy, come close to me, and let me see you!’Sister and brother wound their arms around each other, and the golden light came streaming in, and fell upon them, locked together.‘How fast the river runs, between its green banks and the rushes, Floy! But it’s very near the sea. I hear the waves! They always said so!’

Presently he told her the motion of the boat upon the stream was lulling him to rest. How green the banks were now, how bright the flowers growing on them, and how tall the rushes! Now the boat was out at sea, but gliding smoothly on. And now there was a shore before him. Who stood on the bank?—He put his hands together, as he had been used to do at his prayers. He did not remove his arms to do it; but they saw him fold them so, behind her neck.

‘Mama is like you, Floy. I know her by the face! But tell them that the print upon the stairs at school is not divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!’

The golden ripple on the wall came back again, and nothing else stirred in the room. The old, old fashion! The fashion that came in with our first garments, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll. The old, old fashion—Death!

Oh thank GOD, all who see it, for that older fashion yet, of Immortality! And look upon us, angels of young children, with regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean!

You might find that mawkish, but to me it captures the ineffable strangeness of what is taking place in the mind of a dying person – we can only glimpse it, despite its inevitable role for each one of us. Dickens’ rare gift takes us to the bedside. As music, it’s a Beethoven late quartet, or one of Schubert’s extraordinarily powerful sad, slow, second movements in a piano sonata – D850 perhaps.

Completely different, but just as vivid, with a hard edged resonance identifiable with cool jazz, I’d suggest, is Raymond Chandler:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

…taken from Red Wind, and I’m not the only one who finds it carries an almost impossible to define extra layer of meaning and precision. It is the West Coast of Shelly Manne and his era…

A lot of people think like this – certain forms bring to mind unbidden parallels in other fields, classically synesthesia, or a variation on it. Over to Wikipedia:

… a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

There’s no message here, just an observation on the extended gifts provided by reading and music.

 

Forever Lester Young

Jazz can be addictive, and it can also be repulsive. It depends where you’re coming from – Ed Sheeran to late Coltrane, for example, would be a big jump – and also on what you use as your entrée to its many wonders. You don’t want to be put off right at the start.

For me it was Lester Young. A double LP of 1940’s Lester, borrowed from my local library (look it up, kids) on a whim, pretty much kindled my interest, poor sound quality and all. Lester’s warm breathy tone, and his sly languorous solos floating across the band were pretty ear catching. And he had a certain personal style, verbally, sartorially, musically.

It’s hard to find a perfect example (more below), but here’s a taste..

Yesterday in a charity shop I came across a classic book on jazz, by Anglo-American Leonard Feather, who knew them all. Jazz inspires some truly compelling writing, both on the music (1, 2 for example) and on the people (Miles Davis’ brutal memoir is one for the ages). Feather’s smallish book is a series of portraits of the big names who he actually knew and with whom he worked – Armstrong, Holiday, Miles…and Prez, AKA Lester Young. The essay is a concise gem of Prez’s genius and his suffering. I reproduce it below.

If you read it you’ll see that it all went downhill pretty quickly. A lot of jazz fans claim that his later work is a pale shadow. I’m not convinced. The same was said of Charlie Parker **just before he had to enter the asylum at Camarillo, and people give his version of Loverman as evidence, recorded allegedly when he was blind drunk. When you hear it though, it’s actually achingly beautiful, one of the finest pieces of any music on record I’d say, reflecting all of Bird’s recent pain. Some people are hard to please.

I was lucky enough to be in the world’s greatest record shop recently, Amoeba Music in San Francisco, and got my hands on Lester’s Verve studio recordings, so in much better sound than some of the live stuff. It was out of print until a new release this year. A lot of people say he was already past it. It’s too early for me to have a view on it, but I doubt that the critics are right. Here’s an insightful review from their first release. I quote: Why does anyone need to hear eight CDs that trace the decline and collapse of this great man? Perhaps no one does. And perhaps no one needs to read King Lear, see Death of a Salesman or listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Those who do will be enriched.

Jazz is as full of tragedy as Shakespeare, for sure. As a well considered Amazon review noted: But, while the first five discs will give you many hours of unalloyed joy, there is a scary, deepening sadness that comes with the final three. These are the last days of Lester, and beginning about halfway through disc six, you can hear the magic leaving him. From then on, he seems to shrink, suddenly losing all sense of the beat, sometimes playing only a few wayward notes, inept as any amateur on the instrument. By the time you hit the last Paris sessions of 1959, it is painful to listen to. What makes it even worse is the occasional flash, like dying lightning, of the old genius.

However, here’s that perfect example of prime 1944 Prez, a real find on YouTube. The filming is perfect, the remarkable Marie Bryant is perfect, and Prez is, well….perfect. Enjoy.

 

**Bird and Prez did record together too, check it out.

How to write (an occasional series: 2)

A nice profile in the FT, of a writer that I’d never come across, Denis Johnson, who died last May. Sounds like his stuff is worth a try, but I’m quoting his description of a writer’s life here. A lyrical ode to his modus operandi. Sounds kind of fun, and blogging is, perhaps, its pale imitation:

denisjohnson
Denis Johnson

“Writing. It’s easy work . . . You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape . . . Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”

It seems appropriate to add a little jazz.

Christmas, again

There are so many great takes on Christmas carols and related songs. Here are a few that cropped up in the past year.

The wrecked hedonist chic of English maverick Peter Perrett meets Silent Night:

…and the ragged genius of Tom Waits does the same:

…Ed Harcourt’s unique and awesome take on In The Bleak Midwinter:

Happy** Christmas!!

Here is the favourite Christmas image of the estimable @BeardyHowse – Joseph minding the baby while Mary reads in bed

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Fitzwilliam collection, 15th century

 

**…although if you’re from the Guardian…

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That’s the true spirit of Christmas

Random Lists (4): possibly underappreciated piano concertos

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…it’s got out of hand

When I first heard Beethoven’s 5th (Emperor) piano concerto, I was completely bowled over. I played it umpteen times. That was a radio recording of Julius Katchen with Pierino Gamba conducting a Swiss orchestra. It was awesome rhythmically, the timing, the joie de vivre in the big tunes, the interplay etc etc. Pretty much perfect, it seemed.

Now I can hear it straight through without noticing any of that, whoever is playing. I would love to rediscover that feeling, but I’ve heard it too often. Not many pieces can survive that sort of exposure (though Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano and Gene Clark’s No Other, as well as a few more, do it for me).

But the piano concerto is a unique invention, there is no better orchestra/solo construct, and there are lots of them about. The usual lists (1, 2) contain the usual suspects though (though here’s an alternative), so here are some that may not have grabbed your attention. They should

1. Mozart no 23 (K488)

It might seem a bit of a cheat for this list, but numbers 20, 21, 27 all get more publicity, and yet this piece is just about perfect. I particularly commend the two DG recordings from Pollini and Horowitz. Just wonderful. And I think that a lot of Mozart is just excessively sweet elevator music that rots your teeth.

2. Busoni

This sat unplayed on my shelves for years, then I tried John Ogdon’s typically human recording in the car, and I was hooked. The famed Alex Ross summarises it perfectly, and also offers the ne plus ultra of this stuff, Marc-Andre Hamelin, giving his views on it. The All’Italia theme keeps cropping up with Busoni, and it is fantastic in the concerto, both the piano part and the wild orchestra (from 46 to 57 minutes in the film below). If you want a genuine bargain, try this, but the best all rounder – as Alex Ross says – is probably staid-looking firebrand Peter Donohoe and Mark Elder, live (though it’s hard to get).

3. Beethoven no 1 

Actually, I now find Beethoven’s first three piano concertos more appealing to listen to than the last two, which is the inverse of most opinions. There are lots of CD’s about with numbers 1 and 2 paired up, and they are just beautiful. They are both very linear, relatively simple and very catchy – particularly in the finales. They’re still genre-busters though, this is nothing like Haydn. My ‘go to’ recording is, no surprise, Pollini with Abbado, but Ashkenazy conducting and playing with the Cleveland Orchestra is just as good really. I hate the overuse of the word genius, but Beethoven was one. No tooth decay here.

 

Short list though. They don’t all have to be 5, 10 whatever. Probably should’ve added Medtner no 2

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Twattish comments: an occasional series – Mick Jagger

Despite Bob Dylan winning his Nobel Prize – the best thing about which was Bob’s indifference/disdain for the whole shebang – pop lyrics are generally asinine. When they’re removed from their protective musical cloak things tend to get even worse.

There are still many gems – I always liked “you ain’t no punk, you punk” (The Cramps, Garbageman) – though rarely ones that involve a multimillionaire self-consciously ‘making a point’.

So here is Sir Mick Jagger (last good song, 1980), who has bestowed on us his lofty thoughts on Brexit:

‘Lock the shutters, bolt the doors, London’s gonna be like Singapore’.

Apparently that’s a reference to the ‘horrific’ thought of the UK becoming a tax haven after Brexit. Mick has obviously forgotten the 70’s. 

His piercing insights on politicians are hard to beat too:

‘The world is upside down, led by lunatics and clowns. No one speaks the truth and the mad-house runs the town.’

He’s obviously keen on rhymes.

mj1
Officer my car ain’t startin’, Even though it’s an Aston Martin… (will this do?)

The Punk President

Donald Trump Crowns The New Miss USA Nana Meriwether
21st century renaissance man

Those people who are openly dismayed that they see Trump ripping up the institutions and processes of sane stable government are wrong.

They’re also missing the point.

Trump often has the manner and superfical effect of a wrecking ball, but since 1997 in the UK and 2001 in the US, both countries have been decimated by the slow motion wrecking balls of New Labour, the Bush foreign adventures and the Obama Terror. Do I sound like some sort of right wing Trumpian monster? Possibly I do, but like many voters I am not ideological other than in the vague ‘less government in our lives would be better’ way. And like all voters there are specific issues that I would like to see dealt with. We can disagree on our wants and our priorities, but whatever they are, most voters want pragmatic government that works.

Why do I think Trump is not destroying the institutions of power? Well, it’s in the evidence so far. Charles Krauthammer’s take six weeks ago is pretty much spot on:

The strongman cometh, it was feared. Who and what would stop him? Two months into the Trumpian era, we have our answer.

Our checks and balances have turned out to be quite vibrant. Consider: The courts Trump rolls out not one but two immigration bans, and is stopped dead in his tracks by the courts. However you feel about the merits of the policy itself (in my view, execrable and useless but legal) or the merits of the constitutional reasoning of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (embarrassingly weak, transparently political), the fact remains: The president proposed and the courts disposed. Trump’s pushback? A plaintive tweet or two complaining about the judges — that his own Supreme Court nominee denounced (if obliquely) as “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” The states Federalism lives. The first immigration challenge to Trump was brought by the attorneys general of two states (Washington and Minnesota) picking up on a trend begun during the Barack Obama years when state attorneys general banded together to kill his immigration overreach and the more egregious trespasses of his Environmental Protection Agency. And beyond working through the courts, state governors — Republicans, no less — have been exerting pressure on members of Congress to oppose a Republican president’s signature health-care reform. Institutional exigency still trumps party loyalty. Congress The Republican-controlled Congress (House and Senate) is putting up epic resistance to a Republican administration’s health-care reform. True, that’s because of ideological and tactical disagreements rather than any particular desire to hem in Trump. But it does demonstrate that Congress is no rubber stamp. And its independence extends beyond the perennially divisive health-care conundrums. Trump’s budget, for example, was instantly declared dead on arrival in Congress, as it almost invariably is regardless of which party is in power

Not that I necessarily agree with all these opposing moves, the point is that there is relatively little absolute power outwith national crises and wartime, and all presidents must exist within a system. That system is entirely intact. Of course, in those areas where Trump has shown real skill, he gets little credit from the establishment.

The real damage occurred with his predecessors. The same happened in the UK under Blair, it’s happening now in various parts of Europe courtesy of the EU. Australia and Canada come and go a bit, but it really has been a classical Gramsci/Dutschke ‘long march through the institutions’. There is no better example of the occasionally overt nature of this than the US Supreme Court wrangling – surely all judges should be politically neutral in their work? If only.

Trump and inevitably, Brexit, are the most prominent examples of pushback against this infiltrative game changing. That’s all. And despite the risks and occasional misdemeanours, I welcome both. Particularly when I consider the alternatives. The Trump presidency so far, like Brexit and the associated Remain sulking, has done nothing that changes my mind on this.

There is a good analogy. When I was a teenager back in the 70’s the British cultural and music scene was hardly vibrant. Superannuated hippies made dull long winded and overhyped LP’s, gigs were often tedious doped up snooze fests. Even one’s parents were comfortable with it all. Then came punk. Not just a musical phenomenon (though the best is still great), more of a kicking over the traces cultural paradigm shift that was in some ways absolutely tremendous. The country had a totally different mood. And the Establishment suffered acute Fear and Loathing in response. But there was no threat, no real damage, no real animosity. It was fun. By 1981 it was over, pretty much, as the appalling New Romantics took over, and we’ve never had it again. Four years max.

In fact, as I survey in middle age the current music scene (indeed, nearly everything since the mid 90’s) I shudder at the complacency and derivative boring rubbish that is out there. Punk was great.

And that’s how I see Trump (and Brexit).  How I hate the proclamations of stultifying conventional career progressing professional political types, of whatever party. Boring earnestness usually goes with platitudes, sanctimony, virtue signalling and complete ineffectivenness. That applies to all parties – though some are worse than others. If you become an apostate then the humourless horde try to destroy you. Trump is an antidote, possibly only temporary, like the Punk Era, but welcome all the same. He doesn’t give a toss, he’s spontaneous, he often means well, he’s unconventional**, deeply flawed, funny and rides his luck. His enemies almost uniformly underrate, dismiss and fear him, in one confused bundle. Good for him.

One of the mission statements of this blog is from the late John von Kannon: “If  I can’t have good government, give me entertaining government”.

And you only have to look at who’s against him (and Brexit), to get that little heartwarming glow.

 

**fascinatingly, the day after I wrote this, here is the highly experienced Robert Gates – former CIA and Defence Secretary, with bipartisan support – talking about Trump:

Broadly philosophically, I’m in agreement with his disruptive approach. So in government, I’m a strong believer in the need for reform of government agencies and departments. They have gotten fat and sloppy and they’re not user-friendly. They are inefficient. They cost too much. I also think on the foreign policy side that there is a need for disruption. We’ve had three administrations follow a pretty consistent policy toward North Korea, and it really hasn’t gotten us anywhere. So the notion of disrupting and putting the Chinese on notice that it’s no longer business as usual for the United States I think is a good thing. Now the question is, obviously, in the implementation of disruption. On the foreign policy side, there’s the risk of being too spontaneous and too disruptive where you end up doing more harm than damage. Figuring out that balance is where having strong people around you matters.

Thank Harambe for the alt right

The Knife is a subscriber to the excellent Standpoint magazine, which as Guido details, is in considerable financial trouble. The only problem I have with it is getting the time to read it. The magazine is edited by the genuinely cerebral Daniel Johnson (as opposed to the casually applied ‘cerebral’ epithet to the likes of Barack), and could at a stretch be described as containing the thinking man’s version of the new bogeyman, the alt right. That is not the loose melange of far right cranks, but rather a ‘right of centre’ group of people who are prepared to confront the shibboleths of the formerly ascendant mad lefties, exemplified by Ed Miliband, Hillary (and Barack much of the time), who continually  strafe the political landscape with infantile Hitler accusations and similar, in order to stifle dissent.

Taking another publication with intellectual pretensions, the Guardian, it schizophrenically publishes trite editorials on the alt right theme, whilst at the same time encourages the superb journalism of people like John Harris, whose far more nuanced interpretation of the reasons for Trump and Brexit have been among the journalistic highlights of 2016.

Back to Guido. Here is one of his regular commenters, Kevin T, on the Standpoint situation, and their version of the alt right:

Why all the sniping at the alt right? The alt right actually get shit done. Brexit won, Trump elected. Traditional conservatives have given us sod all since Reagan and Thatcher left office. They mostly just sit there looking timid on Question Time, giving in to the left on everything except taxes. Thank Harambe something else has come along.

He has a point.

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Who knew The Donald was musical too?

Beethoven at the Guggenheim

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Boccioni at MoMA: Dynamism of a Soccer Player (the painting), and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (the bronze). Both 1913. These Futurists…

When visiting the splendid museums and galleries of New York, it becomes pretty obvious that we much of what has been casually labelled ‘modern’ art – such as in the hugely popular MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, of course) and the Whitney – is in fact not very modern at all. Iconic he may be, but the somewhat limited Warhol’s screenprints have the air of musty history about them. Edward Hopper is great, but he’s redolent of the era when my dad was still at school. Picasso too, even the wackily named Futurists, much as I like them, are from more than 100 years ago. There are lots of similar examples.

Go to the Guggenheim, and if you’re unlucky, you’ll find that the best thing on display is the enduring brilliance of the building itself, given the vagaries of contemporary art. Getting an exhibition in the Guggenheim is a meal ticket for any artist, but perhaps only 50% on a good day is actually any good (I know it’s subjective, and that’s my take on it). What it is though, is modern. Even the crap stuff usually has a freshness that has its own beguilement.

Which brings me to Beethoven.

Stravinsky – referring to a specific piece, the Grosse Fugue for string quartet, op 133 – famously described his work as ‘contemporary forever’. That work was described by an 1826 critic as “incomprehensible, like Chinese” and “a confusion of Babel”, and I would add that it is indeed an ear splitting gem of furious dissonance and angst – which sounds rather 21st century as a description , I suppose.  It was written in 1825. If you’re a piano geek, you may know that the biggest, most brutal, most intense and most impenetrable of all the 32 piano sonatas is the Hammerklavier, from 1818. It has a lot in common with the quartet 7 years later. The Hammerklavier is opus 106. I have heard probably 30 or more different versions of it over the last three decades, and I still haven’t fully fathomed it. Far from it (this marvellous review is very insightful). Like the Grosse Fuge, it is absolutely, resolutely contemporary. It knocks modern classical piano compositions out of the park. It is more far reaching or ‘daring’ than any 20th or 21st century piece.

Which is why I was intrigued to find opus 107, an obvious next step that I’d never really considered before. It couldn’t have a more twee 19th century title: Ten National Airs with Variations for Flute and Piano, the national airs being folk songs from Scotland, Ukraine, Austria, Ireland and Wales. Beethoven sanctioned a piano solo version, sacrificing the flute. My copy is played by the slightly maverick Finn, Olli Mustonen. He always seems to apply great dexterity and precision, but with a slightly spiky quality. You can hear the spaces between the notes. A lot of the critics don’t like this applied to Beethoven, but given the points I’ve made about Beethoven being anything but trapped in the 19th century style, I reckon it works. The spaces around the musical line remind me a bit of the Second Viennese School, though Beethoven is reliably tonal. In any event, hear how he takes likeable jaunty folk tunes and turns them inside out. It’s far from the Hammerklavier (though it’s nearly the same length at 41 minutes) and the Grosse Fuge, but it’s still, well, contemporary. See what you think.