05/4/14

Reading music and music theory


reading musicI write about reading a lot, because I read a lot of books. There are other kinds of reading – other languages, too – that I don’t write much about. Reading music is one of them. It’s a different language; a symbolic language with its own grammar, punctuation and rules. As far as reading music goes, I’m semi-illiterate.

I’ve been playing music – guitar mostly – since the Beatles had Ticket To Ride on the hit parade, back in the days of AM radio and 45 RPM singles. But I’m self-taught: no classes or schooling, just a lot of practice and playing. And as a result, my knowledge of musical theory is weak. I know more about the technical structures of a Shakespearean play than I do of a sonata or a pop song. I can read HTML and CSS code with consummate ease, but struggle with a musical score.

What I do know has been cobbled together over the years from playing, listening, asking and some reading. Mostly absorbed by osmosis rather than dedicated effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand music reasonably well, but more on a visceral level than an academic one. And I understand some musical theory – well, bits and bats of it – partly because you get to know about it – even if you don’t always have the technical vocabulary – by playing and jamming. Like playing 12-bar blues. You soon learn the rhythms, the patterns, the chord changes – even if you can’t confidently talk about I-IV-V patterns.

I play a lot of chords and can finger them on several stringed instruments – but while I can hear one and tell if it’s a major, minor or seventh, maybe a diminished or augmented, I can’t really tell you the theory behind why that is. My passion for making music far outruns either my talent to do so or my technical understanding of it.

So, what with organizing and running a local ukulele group, and focusing more on music than ever before, I think it’s time to buckle down and learn more about music in a scholarly way. I need to be able to speak about it confidently in front of the group.

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04/18/14

Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters



VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

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03/30/14

Feetish or Fettish?


Crazy English
I was surprised to recently read in David Crystal’s book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that fetish – which I pronounce “feh-tesh” –  was once pronounced “feetish.” In fact, in the 1920s, Crystal writes, the BBC had that pronunciation in its guide for radio broadcasters.*

It makes sense, of course, when you think about it. Usually when there is a single consonant before a vowel, that vowel is pronounced long. It usually takes two consonants to shorten it. For example:

  • Holy and holly;
  • Mater and matter;
  • Scared and scarred;
  • Hater and hatter;
  • Pater and patter;
  • Diner and dinner;
  • Coping and copping;
  • Caning and canning, and so on.

So logically, it should be written as “fettish” or pronounced “feetish.” One or the other. But it isn’t. And who would ever say “feetish” today? It sounds rather prurient.

English is a wonderfully exceptional language – in that it has so many exceptions to the rules. Fetish-as-fettish is just one of too many to list. Part of the joy of learning and mastering English resides in these exceptions. And part of the frustration.

Locally we have a similar example: Paterson Street. Some folk pronounce that name “Pay-terson” – others “Pah-terson.” Which is correct? Both will be found in pronunciation guides. What’s right is whatever the locals call it, I suppose. To me, it’s logical to make it a long “a” because of the single consonant: Pay-terson. But the city of Paterson, New Jersey makes it short.

So you pronounce it however the natives pronounce it, and the logic of double consonants be damned. After all, how do you pronounce Worcester? That’s English for you.

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03/11/14

What’s in a missing word?


HoraceThere’s a line in one of Horace’s epistles that really caught my eye. In Latin it reads:

Utque sacerdotis fugitiuus liba recuso,
pane egeo iam mellitis potiore placentis
Horace: Epistles, Book I, X

No, I can’t translate it.* However, I was reading David Ferry’s 2001 translation and he renders it like this:

I’m like that slave who ran away because
They fed him honey cakes and he longed for bread.

That appealled to me both for my recent passion for making bread, but also for its philosophic – almost Buddhist – intent.

Ferry gives us both the Latin and English, and I struggle to match the original with the English version. And in doing so, something about his translation bothered me. Something missing.

Wikipedia tells us that Horace’s (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) epistle X is about:

The Advantages of Country Life – (Addressed to Aristius Fuscus, to whom Ode I.22 is also addressed). This epistle begins with Horace contrasting his own love of the country with his friend’s fondness for the town; then follows the praise of Nature; and finally the poet dwells on the superior happiness that moderate means and contentment afford, compared with riches and ambition.

Fine. I understand: Horace is saying he prefers the plain life of the country, not the honey-cake life of the city. He doesn’t need the luxuries and the excesses to be content.

Ferry isn’t a literal translator: more of a poetic one. He’s been acclaimed for that, and criticized for it, too, but I like his work. Many English renditions of Latin poetry come across as stilted and forced, while I find Ferry’s work much smoother and reads more naturally (some call it “approachable”). (Read here how other English-speaking poets have variously tackled Horace)

Still, one Latin word in the original stuck out as missing in translation: sacerdotis.

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02/14/14

Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?


Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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01/16/14

Saving Fubsy from Lexicographical Caliginosity


Old DictionaryCousin Stephen, you will never be a saint. Isle of saints. You were awfully holy, weren’t you? You prayed to the Blessed Virgin that you might not have a red nose. You prayed to the devil in Serpentine avenue that the fubsy widow in front might lift her clothes still more from the wet street. O si, certo! Sell your soul for that, do, dyed rags pinned round a squaw. More tell me, more still!! On the top of the Howth tram alone crying to the rain: Naked women! naked women! What about that, eh?

A fubsy window? A short and stocky window.

You will likely have recognized the quote from James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Joyce coined a few words – monomyth and quark for example – but fubsy wasn’t among them. Oxford Dictionary tells us it comes from the:

…late 18th century: from dialect fubs ‘small fat person’, perhaps a blend of fat and chub

Which sounds a bit like a Johnsonian guess for its etymology rather than a precise statement.

Merriam Webster says the first recorded use is 1780, and that it means, “chubby and somewhat squat.” Collins Dictionary tells us it comes from “obsolete fubs plump person.”

Or, as the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 12th (printed) edition, defines it, “fat and squat.”

Fub shows up in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as “a plump, chubby boy.” Somewhere between that and 1597, the definition changed. In 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare had Falstaff using fub in a line to Prince Hal, meaning “fob off, cheat, rob”. And in 2 Henry IV, “fub off” is to used to mean “fob off, put off.” (according to Shakespeare’s Words by David & Ben Crystal) English poet John Marston (1576 –  1634) first used “fubbery” to mean cheating.

Somehow fub seems to have evolved from cheat to fat. Maybe they were just homonyms. Or maybe Shakespeare was just playing his usual word games.

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