Friday, August 31, 2007

Short Answers

Juan Cole asks (via Kevin Drum):

Goebbels-like propaganda? Do we really live in an Orwellian state?


Atrios must be in his undisclosed location today, so I'll help out with my own edition of short answers to urgent questions.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lyre, lyric ...

Trekking around the web yesterday I came across a note by Ernest Hilbert on Sappho and lyric at boldtype, which apparently is (or was) a house organ for Random House. Random House now publishes a few poets, but nothing too exciting - these days it's the home of Franz Wright and Billy Collins - so I didn't expect to encounter anything of particular interest there.

I'd been thinking about the connection of lyric to music, though, most recently for the last post on Thomas Rain Crowe and the Boatrockers, and found this part of his note engaging:

Unlike most poets today, Sappho was a musician and singer (this is to assert that few poets are serious musicians and almost no popular songwriters produce what one would feel comfortable describing as poetry, even according the radically diminished standards of our day). She is credited with the invention of a type of lyre, its pick, and the mixolydian mode (according to Aristoxenos via Plutarch; it should be noted, as it is not in the introduction to this book [Ann Carson's If Not, Winter, her translations of Sappho's fragments], that the modes we use today are not the same as those of the ancient Greeks; no record exists of their actual music, which was likely not intended to be transcribed, not unlike today's popular music; the modes used now, though bearing the same names as the ancient Greek, were devised around 1,000 CE in the anonymous Dialogus de musica and Guido of Arezzo's Micrologus; other modes, known to poets for their wonderful names, include the Dorian, Hypodorian, Phrygian, Hypophrygian, and Aeolian). Sappho represents the recorded origins of lyric poetry. This type of poetry was sung.

Notwithstanding the few crotchety parentheses and asides, there's actual information there; I'm sure I didn't know that Sappho had actually invented a lyre. There's more at boldtype, including a link to the new, non-Random House site. I've bookmarked it, signed up for the free newsletter, may even check back every now and then. Give it a look.


Image found at the University of Texas portrait gallery, originally published in World Noted Women celebrated in history, poetry, and romance for beauty, character, and heroism, published by Appleton in 1881.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Thomas Rain Crowe and the Boatrockers: Rocking Out

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely nights
Dreaming of a song
That melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
Ah, but that was long ago
Now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song ...

That's Hoagy Carmichael, of course - or the lyric, at any rate, to his magnificent old song, "Stardust". Carmichael wrote most of his work before even my time (he recorded "Stardust" in 1927)*, but I came to love his wonderful song through a version that (averting eyes in embarrassment) Pat Boone did back in 1958; I was fourteen, and it stayed with me. Decades later, I could still sing my daughter to sleep to its fluid quavering lilt.

The origins of music, like the origins of poetry, are buried in the dust - make that the strata of dust- of time, but we know that they've been hand-in-hand, or perhaps heart-to-heart, for eons. The lyric voice of poetry is named for the lyre which, an age or two ago and an ocean away, often accompanied it; the term "lyric poetry" has been in use in English since at least 1581, and is used to denote, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, poetry

adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung, pertaining to or characteristic of song. Now used as the name for short poems (whether or not intended to be sung), usually divided into stanzas or strophes, and directly expressing the poet's own thoughts or sentiments.

It's the voice of Shakespeare's Sonnets, most of Keats and Shelly, Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin, "I Want To Hold Your Hand", a million singer/songwriters - and even Charles Olson's "The Ring Of"; so deeply imbued is it in the project of poetry in our language that poets who wish to work in other modes still have to contend with its voice.

There's something in the fusion of words - lyrics, we call them - and music that makes them more powerful together than either is separately; their combination seems to permit them to insinuate song into the synapses where our deepest memories dwell.

That the lyric is such a common voice of poetry and song, of course, makes the task of anyone who approaches it all the more daunting. How be heard, among so many voices? As always, the answer is to find the new - even if, sometimes, what's new is re-covered from an ancient past, another tongue.

Ever the adventurous archaeologist of imagination, poet and translator Thomas Rain Crowe brings this ancient fusion to life once again on September 7th, when he and The Boatrockers will kick off their fall "Thief of Words Tour" at (where else) the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in downtown Asheville.

The band will be performing a mix of material, some of it as ancient as the 14th century Iranian poet Hafez, many of whose lyric ghazals Crowe has translated, and as new as now, with echoes of everything from Chicago blues to New Orleans jazz and Jamaican reggae - including this piece, a poem, as Crowe says, "for voice and band":

The Sound of Light

Music is the blood of the stars.
The laugh of God.
The sound of the breath of the moon
In the child asleep.
The sadness of the earth as it sings.
And the yawn of the
Old man as he gently dies....

Even the ant is listening to the voice of the sky!
Weaving it's way through the grass
In that light.
As Eternity joins in the chorus
Of day as it makes love to the night.

All mankind is singing!

Like gyroscopes in the blood of space.
Or luminescence on thresholds of pain.
In the wind, in the trees, in the rain....

Let the colors become the song.
Then sing!

Everyone is singing.
The shepherd. The clown.
The weaver and priest.
And the ones we can't quite see.

All singing.
All in the same key.

Crowe's fellows in the Boatrockers are an accomplished group of musicians, able to blend, elegantly, the traditional acoustic music of the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India) with the sounds of modern electronic technology. Chris Rosser, a nationally known and award-winning singer-songwriter and string-instrument virtuoso, brings the voice of Eastern instruments to the Boatrockers eclectic mix on such instruments as sarod, dotar, jumbush, sitar, and saz, as well as the Spanish guitar and keyboards. An accomplished and much-sought-after studio musician, his solo recordings include Archeology, The Holy Fool, and Hidden Everywhere.

Wayne Kirby, a former member of the Debbie Harry-fronted band Blondie, has composed and performed music for both Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals, conducted small orchestras in Las Vegas on its famous strip, and is an experimental electronic music composer. Currently he is a member of the cross-genre band Jibblin the Frolines and head of the Music Department at UNCA.

Doug Shearer, an accomplished and versatile drummer, plays everything from the trap set typical of rock and jazz, to Middle Eastern hand drums. Originally from Pennsylvania and New York City, he now resides in Asheville, NC.

Nan Watkins, a piano keyboard prodigy, studied music at Oberlin College and the Vienna Academy of Music, and with some of the best teachers in both Europe and America. Now an electronic keyboard performer and composer, her latest solo CD, entitled The Laugharne Poems, appeared on the Fern Hill Records label.

Sal D'Angio, an accomplished tabla and guitar player, has studied with music masters in Nepal and India, and has performed and recorded with world-music bands in both Philadelphia and Denver before joining the Boatrockers and moving to Asheville.

Greg Olson is a recording studio owner and accomplished recording engineer. As a talented guitarist, he has recently released an all-instrumental CD, entitled Speaking to the Water, which was produced by legendary record producer Bill Halverson. He was a founding member of the world-music and reggae band One Straw, and joins Kirby as a member of his current band, Jibblin the Frolines.

After the Asheville show the band will hit the studios of WNCW in Spindale for a live version of the station's "Local Color" on Sept. 12; and will be at Lenoir-Rhyne College (in Hickory) on Sept. 13. For more information on these shows, call 828-293-9237.

The festivities will get under way at the Center at 8:00 PM. The Boatrockers' undertaking is as new as iTunes, as old as time - or at least our human time here on this fair orb- and they're extraordinary indeed at what they do, so they should provide us all an evening to remember.

What: Thomas Rain Crowe and the Boatrockers
Where: The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
When: Friday, September 7th, 8:00 pm
Admission: $8, $5 for BMCM+AC members and students w/ID.
For more information: 828-350-8484


* He lived until 1981, but his work by then had long been eclipsed from the popular eye by Rock and Roll.

L to R in the photo:
front, from left: Sal D'Angio, Thomas Rain Crowe
back, from left: Wayne Kirby, Nan Watkins, Chris Rosser, Greg Olson, Doug Shearer.

This post appeared in somewhat different form in the Rapid River for September. Thanks to Thomas Rain Crowe and the Boatrockers for the photo, band bios, and new poem.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

A summer night ...

listening to katydids.


Photo discovered here.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

"Upon my departure"

The memorial service for Ron today was a fine re-membering of him, I thought, indeed. Howard Hanger and Paul Ghost Horse collaborated to create an evocative, resonant ceremony that articulated the themes of Ron's life, and offered space for many of his friends and family members to share memories of their experiences with Ron as well. Though I'd known Ron for years, so long that I no longer remember exactly where and when we met (just that it was some time in the eighties), I felt that I knew him much better after the afternoon of shared stories.

The handout that Rita Hayes, Candace Rice, and Ron's sister Cyndi put together featured, among other things, a statement Ron had jotted down in his own hand for reading "upon my departure" - in 1979, when he was just thirty. It had been folded and stored in a keepsake box, and Rita and Candace discovered it as they were going through Ron's things after his death. Here it is (just click on the image to enlarge it for reading):


Cross-posted at Celebrating Ron Ruehl.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Music and Mirror Neurons

As I mentioned below, some of my favorite blogs are actually science blogs - or, more specifically, anthropology blogs, like Archaeoblog; John Hawks Anthropology Weblog, which focuses
on paleoanthropology, genetics, and evolution; Dienekes Anthropology Blog (featuring at the moment a post on "Mating patterns amongst Siberian reindeer hunters" ; you know that's got to be good); and PZ Meyers' Pharyngula.

One of the places their links have often taken me is the online science mag, Seed, which a couple of months ago ran a fascinating interview between David Byrne, the lead singer and songwriter, as Seed says, "of the seminal late 70s band Talking Heads", and Daniel Levitin, "who worked as a session musician, sound and recording engineer, and record producer", but "is now the James McGill professor of behavioral neuroscience and music at McGill University, and the author of The New York Times bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music".

The interview explores different approaches to articulating the role music plays in consciousness, and its complex relationship to emotion (from, for once, the performer's standpoint):

DB: In a musical performance, whether it's recorded or live, people feel the emotion is coming from the performer, and that's what makes it authentic and true and therefore more upstanding and good. Whereas I would say, yeah, okay, a little bit. But music has attributes that you can objectify. This kind of sound, this kind of rhythm, will generate this kind of emotion even if it's done in a half-ass manner.

Anyone who's ever played air guitar should be interested in their exchange about that bit of human play:

One of the great mysteries in human behavior was that a newborn child can look up at its parent, and the parent smiles, and the newborn will smile. Well, how does it know how to do that? How does it know by looking at an upturned mouth what muscles it needs to move to make its own mouth turn up? How does it know that it's going to produce the same effect? There's a whole complicated chain of neuroscientific puzzles attached to this question.

DB: So when you watch a performance, sports for example, you're not only watching somebody else do it. In a neurological kind of way, you're experiencing it.

DL:Yeah, exactly. And when you see a musician, especially if you're a musician yourself--

DB: —air guitar.

DL: Air guitar, right! And you can't turn it off—it's without your conscious awareness. So mirror neurons seem to have played a very important role in the evolution of the species because we can learn by watching, rather than having to actually figure it out step-by-step.

DB: Yeah, and not only that. You also empathize, you feel what they're feeling.
That, of course, is what drives Bill Knott up the wall about music, its power to inspire empathy:

(that's why they invented music in the first place: to accompany murder)

(that's the purpose of music: to facilitate killing) . . .
(Can you tell from those notes that Bill doesn't particularly like music?)

I may have more about all this later, but just go read it; it's a conversation well worth dropping in on.


Later 8/7/07: Update: To be fair, do read Bill's comment here, too.

Thanks to for the neuron image, and a hat-tip to John Hawks Anthropology Weblog for the link.

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