Category Archives: Music and words

A serendipitous postscript to: Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

A good reporter thinking in what couldn’t be deemed his finest hour was complaining the other day that the net has killed serendipity. To that I say, stuff and nonsense. The fact is, it’s alive and well and has only done a bit of shape-shifting — just as Serendip, the inspiration for that gorgeous word, turned into Ceylon and then Sri Lanka.

After I’d posted my last entry here, I got curious about how posterity is treating Bruce Chatwin. Near the top of search engine offerings for my query, I found a surprising and highly original assessment of his work by a friend of his, the composer Kevin Volans.

No, that doesn’t count as an example of serendipity, but only the equivalent of a waiter appearing with poached eggs and a double espresso because I’d ordered — gosh!poached eggs and a double espresso. I was looking for other people’s opinions of the Chatwin oeuvre: that was what I got. What did signal serendipity was that the title of the Volans paper, written for last spring’s Oxford Literary Festival, was Some Japanese Influences on Style and Structure in Bruce Chatwin’s Writing. And as if that wasn’t sufficiently delectable on its own, he explains en passant that it was ‘the compositional structure of the books that first attracted me to Bruce’s work.’

Volans’ analysis justifies an obsession of mine — that we need much more of both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary criticism in the arts, because it’s in the perspectives of outsiders that the most illuminating insight is found disproportionately. That’s not something I can prove statistically or in any objective way, of course. But though I have no formal training in either classical music or poetry appreciation, this segment of the — rather disorganised, only it doesn’t matter — paper immediately leapt out as fresh and true:

In place of metaphor Chatwin tends to use a structure also found in haiku or its older form waka – an AB form in which the first part sets up an expectation, and the second part provides a resolution (which is often unexpected). The resonance created between the first and the second parts substitutes for metaphor. […] This is the basis of the structure of Japanese linked poetry which was developed from the 8th century onwards. According to Yuasa, ‘…each poem takes up the suggestion of the last poem and yet opens up a new world of its own, so that the reader is carried though the whole series as through the exquisitely arranged rooms of a building.’ I think this is what Bruce aspired to in his more ambitious moments.

An AB structure runs throughout Bruce’s late work in particular – the
form is so common as to almost be a personal cliché – and is used both on a small and a large scale. […]

A: “Mrs. Gandhi wore a green and white striped sari. And sat down to a breakfast
B: that never came.” [ What Am I Doing Here ]

A: “They set down the coffin with a show of reverence.
B: Then, attracted by the smell of hot bread from a bakery along the street, they strolled off to get breakfast…” [ Utz ]

A: “Olwen had kicked. The hoof caught him under the chin,
B: and the sparrows went on chattering.” [ On the Black Hill ]

I wondered what Volans would make of the Shawn Yu portrait of Chatwin that I was attracted to because it gets behind the shimmering, beguilingly fey persona that the writer created. This passage in the Volans critique led me to suspect that he just might understand my choice of image:

[Artistry] transcends ‘personality’. Personality is formed and assessed socially and is habitual […] Beethoven the personality may have driven Beethoven the artist, but it was the intellect, the intelligence and the imagination of the artist that created the realms of his music. […] I say all of this because with Bruce Chatwin it is easy to be sideswiped by the glamour of the personality and the life of the author. Indeed, I think that at times the artist and the persona in Bruce were at odds with each other.

Volans believes that Chatwin was deeply influenced by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North — particularly in the writing of his impressionistic, idiosyncratic, collage- and blog-like account of his Australian odyssey:

For me Bruce’s novel with the most interesting structure is The Songlines. In form it’s almost an exact parallel of Basho’s A Visit to Sarashina Village: first a prose narrative which gives way to a set of linked verse. Basho, in the company of a pupil, sets off to see Mount Obasute under a full moon. The piece becomes a meditation on the meaning of travel, and journeying as a metaphor for transience of life itself. The linked poems at the end are by Basho and his disciple Etsujin.


[The Songlines ] is, of course, primarily a meditation on walking, travelling and its meaning. And the notebooks at the end have links: Petrarch talks of sleeping in a different bed each night. This links to Rimbaud (asking what am I doing here) – to a sleepless night in an hotel in Brazil – to the names of 2 hotels in Cameroon, the Windsor and the anti-Windsor – which provide a link a the British ambassador in Kabul, whose contradictory initiative and insensitivity to local culture leads to a Moorish proverb on the value of men – which prompts a story of a little man who prospects for jewellery in sewers in Miami: “’It is not, I can assure you, sir’ he said, ‘ an unrewarding occupation.’” And so on. And of course, many of the notes are quotations from other people’s writings.

Another point on which Volans and I might be singing in perfect harmony is about the commercialisation of the arts — an affliction I’ve bewailed before in writing about the fate today of journalism and book publishing.

By starting his career with In Patagonia Chatwin ran into a problem: all the arts are now run by their arch enemy: Business – in this case the Book Industry. And industries love labels. Work must be classified into genres. Is it fact or fiction? Is it a novel or is it a travel book? I recall one of the judges of the Booker prize being almost more annoyed at the brevity of Utz than anything else. The book didn’t fit into his classification of a novel, and therefore he felt it didn’t belong in the competition! (Imagine Capability Brown’s apoplexy at the sight of a stone garden).

I see hyper-serendipity as one of the greatest treats the net serves up. I’d have rated my chances of stumbling on Volans’ thoughts about Chatwin before I came online at close to zero. I am unlikely to have thought of asking a reference librarian about parallels in exotic cultural traditions for Chatwin’s literary style, and as for what rhythms a composer might discern in it — no, again, not even in a dream.

Yes, I do have an extraordinary friend or two who might, out of the blue, volunteer observations from a Volans-like perspective — or opinions as penetrating from some other viewpoint entirely. But that would be serendipity, too — the old-fashioned, ante-net kind.


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Filed under Book publishing, Criticism, Music and words, Poetry, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

On books as Bondmobiles . . . and a translation web site

When books become Bondmobiles, I expect that writers will be trans-textual getaway artists cobbling together scribbles, recorded music, spoken words, . . . moving and still pictures – some of all that newly minted, and the rest borrowed, licensed or filched.

Bondmobiles – who dat? You’ll know exactly what I mean if, like me, you hadn’t grasped the powers of special effects when you gasped, the first time you saw 007’s getaway wheels leave the ground — or dive into water and speed away serenely, just as the baddies close in on the Prince of Suaveness.

But what will scribes of the future escape through technologically assisted shape-shifting? I mean, aside from poverty – if they are lucky, and the audiences for mixed media creations prove larger than for old, purist forms. Perhaps they will evade the years of concentrated effort it takes to get good enough at any one craft – for instance, writing — to justify sacrificing the rest of your life at its altar. Yesterday I saw that early research by one Anders Ericsson and colleagues at a university in Florida suggests that it takes an average of ten years or 10,000 hours of ‘persistent, focused training and experience’ to reach the threshold of ‘world-class expertise in any discipline – music, sports, chess, science . . .’.

What I’m trying to say – the long way around — is that the push from computerised tools towards media scrambling in the arts could well mean that virtually all the great literature there will ever be has already been written. When most works of art are blends of several forms, why should anyone strive to outdo the old masters of any one form?

I recognise this as prejudiced thinking. But there’s no alternative to it since, as some of our youngest (twentysomething) comrades were recently complaining on this site, professional writers have lagged behind other creators in investigating the possibilities of mixed media. That means that there is hardly any basis for comparison. Some bloggers are heavy users of graphics and sound clips, but I’ve yet to see an established, serious, literary writer with a site like that – posting long-ish texts up to his or her mark.

I’d suggest two reasons for this:

The fear of artistry interruptus – losing the seductive powers of unified form, development and close attention.

In an essay I’ve posted in another part of this site, Robert Frost mentions ‘the figure a poem makes’. Works in all the art forms we’re used to have a shape and a progression – which are present even when deliberately subverted, so that our brains reflexively reassemble one of Picasso’s beauties with an eyeball in her cheek and luscious lips in an ear lobe to give us a fair idea of what his model looked like, in life.

‘No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place,’ Frost said of the shape of a poem, in one of the most beautiful sentences ever written. A poem ‘assumes direction with the first line laid down . . . has denouement . . . has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood … ’.

As for poetry, so for other kinds of literature. Wouldn’t bloggers who have posted literary fiction on the net want us readers to be utterly absorbed by the structures they have chosen for those stories or novels – whether loose or tight, classic, modernist or post-modernist? Some of these dear comrades have been complaining about writers not incorporating at the very least, music, into their works.

But if music or, say, striking images were spliced into texts, wouldn’t that steal both attention and the tension of their unfolding – and in the end, amount to the artistic equivalent of coitus interruptus? . . . It’s different with, for instance, cinema, which has always been a more diffuse and inclusive medium, blending elements of theatre, painting, sculpture, music and literature — at least, for the lifespan of anyone blogging here. Looking backwards at early mixed-media objects, I can’t think of any part of the text of an illuminated manuscript that a language-lover would quote with as much pleasure as, say, ‘Consider the lilies of the field,’ from a book not intended to share creative effort or concentration with pictures.

The lack of a ‘killer-app’ for the textual revolution – so far.

. . . for instance, microwave ovens – the accidental discovery of an engineer working with radar in the 1940s – never took off as substitutes for conventional ovens, for most people. These gadgets only found customers when presented as accelerated reheaters and defrosters of food, the ‘killer applications’ of this particular invention.

I’m guessing that media scrambling by writers won’t happen in any significant way until it meets a vital need that has so far gone unmet, or has yet to be invented . . . I’m thinking, for instance, of a scaling-up of a relatively trivial proposition I posted almost exactly two years ago. It was in a discussion of translating Don Quixote, on another site – and I was suggesting a way of making the literary heirlooms of other cultures less impenetrable, and of giving foreigners deeper insight into what makes them great.

I reposted those thoughts a few days later on a blog about digital publishing on the same site by Chris Meade, the head of an organisation — Bookfutures— that has been using public funds to look into what comes after print. He liked the idea well enough to come below the line to suggest getting in touch with him to discuss it in detail. I’m pasting in some of the original posts below, and putting a more complete record of our conversation about multimedia translation in the Long Posts section of this site.

Everyone who hates the idea will please spell out exactly why, being as insulting as you like. If it’s a flightless bird, I’d like to know that as soon as possible and free the mental patch it’s been occupying for other (far madder) uses.

03 Mar 07, 11:57am


Maybe it is enjoyable for me because I am reading it in Portuguese translation (he’s pronounced key-SHO-chee in Brazilian Portuguese – I hear much 16th/17th-century Castilian pronunciation is closer to Portuguese than modern Spanish) as my limited Spanish would make it too laborious. Perhaps the humour, historical assumptions and other bases for the humour, the funny turns of phrase etc aren’t as e asily translatable in English as into languages closer to Castilian.

[. . .]

07 Mar 07, 6:28pm

[…] The passion of a reader much closer than I am to the original language of a book could make up for the chief annoyance of translations, not being able to hear the language and harmonies (or dissonance) that the author chose. . . [W]ouldn’t it be wonderful if each of the great classics could have its own web site, with experts or lovers of the original language on hand to answer questions and help foreigners struggling with uninspired and stodgy renderings into their mother tongues? To cheer that foreign reader through longueurs – if only with an excellent chat?

The site I have in mind would also make it possible to highlight a passage, and then listen to a beautiful reading of it in the original, to get the kind of feeling for the language that bypasses a literal understanding of it. It’s already possible to do this at the movies, when you can stop reading the subtitles in, say, a film by Almodovar (surely another Spanish artist indebted to Cervantes, as maybe Dali was, too) and just listen for a while.

07 Mar 07, 7:16pm

It’s a good idea wordnerd. Some works really lend themselves to that kind of treatment. Some kind of English site with a direct per-chapter linkage to the Spanish site could be a starter. [. . .]

. . . I didn’t take Chris Meade up on his invitation. Government-funded organisations tend to substitute endless meetings and white paper-drafting for action – and I like to move fast (as some of us did in a a flash blogging experiment organised by @ISA a few weeks ago). Yes, another kind of prejudice, I’ll admit. The explosively irate reaction of a few fellow-bloggers to Meade and his blog (see Long Posts) didn’t help matters.

But there you have it: one miniature case study of the obstacles to textual or indeed any other kind of innovation – an example of a low-grade Bondmobile blueprint that found some support but still got nowhere.

. . . It’s not hard to imagine laughing at myself, some day, for the reservations I’ve expressed about artistic hybrids replacing _all_ today’s pure forms – not just supplementing them, as in a captivating YouTube video I recently mentioned. Just as I smiled at reading, the other day, about Samuel Beckett’s disgust with a venerable media hybrid in which it takes effort for the rest of us to perceive aesthetic miscegenation. ‘It is precisely because music has a subordinate part in it that ballet annoys me,’ he said. ‘For serious music cannot be of use.’

The 20th century’s greatest playwright was being a grump: No one can really hold that the medium should be static and stand still in one place.


Filed under Book publishing, Music and words, Poetry, The blogosphere, The sound of blogging

Don’t shoot the piano player, . . . I have a much better idea

Bloggers burning with community spirit who helped me to test WordPress’s polling software by voting in a violin vs. piano survey last month will want to know this: three of a staggering turnout of sixteen voters didn’t prefer either instrument to the other. Two opinionators, I have no idea who, volunteered reckonings of aural perfection that will keep me guessing for a long time yet: ‘fuzzed up freak-beat guitar’ and ‘children’s playground.’

Twelve people cast their vote as I did — in a landslide victory for the piano. Knowing how keenly some comrades lust after originality, I’m sorry to report that their failure to choose the violin cost them their chance to make their mark in the annals of perversity. That’s right, the queen of stringed instruments did not win a single vote.

My fellow bloggers have been scarce on the ground almost everywhere during this month’s seemingly endless Big Freeze in Britain – but perhaps, when you return, you’ll have some suggestions for the obvious question about this remarkable result: why?

An intense – not exactly cheerful — experience of listening to Brahms’ first symphony in early January led me to wonder about the effects of particular musical instruments on our emotions. I’m not thinking of ‘mood music’ – of, for instance, the way the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is in sympathy with soaring optimism and nation-building bravado, or of how perfectly the scherzo passages that come later spell anxiety and mischief — and made E. M. Forster think of goblins (in Howard’s End).

I’m toying with something different — the idea of an intrinsic affinity between characteristic sounds of different instruments and their capacity for creating or enhancing certain states of mind. To me, anyway, the violin sings ‘poignant’ and ‘plaintive’ as surely as the piano does ‘clear’ and ‘transcendent’.

On that rather disturbing evening, the violins in the Brahms piece transformed a wistful mood into a mental state I would illustrate, if I had to, with a human form being sucked up and whirled away by a thundercloud muttering, in a thought bubble, ‘But how could reciprocal cherishing (also) be so sad?’.

Leaving the concert hall was out of the question. Instead, I reached for a pen and purchased moments of relief by scribbling into my programme, ‘Cue piano — please,’ – even though I could see that the orchestra had nothing of the kind. It was as if I were begging for a piano to slice through the emotional excess in what the programme notes described as ‘some of the most violent music [Brahms] would ever write;’ come in and take over, like Robert Frost’s ‘Truth’ breaking in ‘[w]ith all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm.’

No instrument but the violin has such an effect on me. I haven’t yet met anyone else who feels quite the same way about it, though I have reason to believe that my reaction at the concert was far from unique. In Musicophilia, mentioned here last week, Oliver Sacks says that Tolstoy did not entirely like music because of its power to induce ‘emotions and images […] not his own and not under his control.’ Sacks points out that in a short story by the great Russian, The Kreutzer Sonata, the narrator murders his wife for her infidelity, for which he actually blames the Beethoven piece – ‘the real enemy, he feels […] is the music.’

Of course the wife had enraged him by playing the sonata with her lover — a violinist.

I’m sure that there is somewhere in literature a piano that inspires in some people lines like Baudelaire’s ‘Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige, / Un coeur tendre, qui hait le néant vaste et noir!’ – rendered in one of five alternative translations on the interesting OldPoetry web site as, ‘The violin quivers like a tormented heart,/ A tender heart, that hates the vast, black void!’ If I ever came across a passage in which a piano is supposed to set such a tone, it was soon forgotten. It simply would not have resonated as the strings do in Harmonie du Soir.

Never mind that caterwauling sounds a good deal worse: the unfortunate animal frantic to escape its tormenters and the tremulous sounds in this YouTube video knows precisely what I mean.

But why do the lovers of language who keep me company here so strongly favour plinking over sawing? Can it be that we’re attracted by the articulation that is the glory of the pianoforte – an instrument that can express, honour and revel in, but ultimately transcend, feeling?


Filed under Music and words, Polling booth

Poetry is the sister of music, not science or mathematics

Every attempt at certain arguments reminds some of us of watching a particularly grisly and unfortunate accident in progress. Just because they are mentioned in the same sentences by the great and wise does not mean that these three things go together: scholarship, science and poetry.

Don Quixote, said to be the world’s first novel, makes the point mischievously. ‘Children,’ Cervantes has the arch-enemy of windmills pronounce in the translation Project Gutenberg carries, ‘are portions of their parents’ bowels,’ and must be acquainted with the ‘science’ of poetry – using the term when it had nothing to do with experimenting but meant something like ‘producing knowledge’. He continues:

Poetry, gentle sir, is, […] like a tender young maiden of supreme beauty, to array, bedeck, and adorn whom is the task of several other maidens, who are all the rest of the sciences; and she must avail herself of the help of all, and all derive their lustre from her.


[…] according to a true belief, a poet is born one; that is to
say, the poet by nature comes forth a poet from his mother’s womb; and following the bent that heaven has bestowed upon him, without the aid of study or art, he produces things that show how truly he spoke who said,
‘Est Deus in nobis,’ etc. At the same time, I say that the poet by nature who calls in art to his aid will be a far better poet, and will surpass him who tries to be one relying upon his knowledge of art alone. The reason is, that art does not surpass nature, but only brings it to perfection; and thus, nature combined with art, and art with nature, will
produce a perfect poet.

Why the persistent over-reaching, the insistence that poetry is in some vital sense ‘the same as’ science – or mathematics, as Shirley Dent, an adventurous but sometimes petrifyingly quixotic blogger, argues this week in ‘Maths and poetry have a special relationship’ ? To summon Einstein saying, ‘Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas’ does not prove that the mental processes involved overlap more than very slightly – in that both calculus and Coleridge’s Xanadu involve distilled and concentrated thought, imagination, and abstraction.

Her first claim for their alikeness, that we learn to count numbers at the same age at which we first recite poetry, made me wonder why she didn’t go on to explain what precious insight potty training – also associated with that phase – has to offer into ‘One, two, buckle my shoe,’ or the failure to faint at the sight of a logarithmic table.

I blame the one art with which real poetry overlaps – poetry in which rhythm is always detectable – for batty, irresponsible knight-errantry like Dent’s. In Musicophilia, his riveting report on what neuroscience has to tell us about music’s meaning for us, Oliver Sacks says that

[M]usic calls to both parts of our nature – it is essentially emotional, as it is essentially intellectual.

. . . and . . .

[W] e have separate and distinct mechanisms for appreciating the structural and emotional aspects of music […]

So it is only one half of what music is that resembles the sciences. My guess is that it’s anxiety about the intellectual respectability of poetry in a technocratic age, and the hope of glamour by association with maths and science, that are driving people like Dent in their hopeless quests for commonality.

Modern science, like scholarship, is about patient and minute logical analysis. Sacks reminds us that those are types of mental effort that can push our brains too far in the direction of structuring and systematising, bypassing – and even degrading – our capacity to appreciate the wonderfully strange ways in which music splices together thinking and feeling. Even if there have been miraculous minds like Lewis Carroll’s capable of leaping across the divide, I’d suppose that what’s true of music is almost certainly true of poetry, as in this complaint of Charles Darwin’s that Sacks mentions:

Formerly pictures gave me considerable and music very intense delight. But now . . . I have almost lost my taste for pictures or music. My mind seems to have become a sort of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact . . . The loss of these tastes, this curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes, is a loss of happiness […]

. . . and this one, by Sigmund Freud, a few sentences later, explaining that though powerfully affected by some works of art, he cannot enjoy them without being able to explain them:

Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.

Realising this young kept some of us from the formal study of art and literature – and in my case, was responsible for frantic and elaborate, intricate doodling in the backs of exercise books to shut out nearly all dissections of novels, plays and poems in school classrooms.

Anyone thinking about the difference between making art and its analysis might want to consider Ecclesiastes’. . .

He that observeth the wind shall not sow . . .

. . . or my most pressing reason for writing this post, which is adding the best words I’ve ever read about poems and poets, Robert Frost’s The Figure A Poem Makes, to the Geniuses section of this site. Here’s the most essential truth about poetry’s relationship to systematic thought:

Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art.

That’s Cervantes’ idea too, said differently.


Filed under Criticism, Music and words, Poetry, Psychology

Just a test: vote for a musical preference

This is a shockingly simple-minded test of a new possibility – voting! Would anyone reading here please click in the virtual polling booth? . . . even if you don’t have an opinion on the subject – because nothing but the accordion or snare drum means anything to you ? . . . Thank you.

[ The results were published on 12 February 2009 ]

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Filed under Music and words, Polling booth