Saturday, December 31, 2022

first notes on reading, 2022

In March of this year about to end I took Swann's Way down from the shelf, just to remind myself of how it feels, how it starts, or rather how it proceeds after the start which no one could forget, and to my surprise found myself re-reading it. By the end of the year I would have read through the end (the vicious, brutal end) of The Guermantes Way. The first time I read Proust, 2013-2015, I tried not to be but was constantly aware of myself as reading a Giant and Important work, undertaking a Task which it would be Heroic to Complete. This second time I'm just reading it - picking it up when I want to and reading it. Naturally this, no doubt along with the time that has passed in my own life, the things I have done and learned and thought about in that time, primary among them time itself, means that I am more feeling and understanding what these pages are doing, the way they behave towards and in time, and not only time, this time than I did the first.

Early on I sent this passage to my weather-obsessed father:

But Bloch had displeased my family for other reasons. He had begun by irritating my father, who, seeing him come in with wet clothes, had asked him with keen interest:

"Why, M. Bloch, is there a change in the weather? Has it been raining? I can't understand it; the barometer was set fair."

Which drew from Bloch nothing more than: "Sir, I am absolutely incapable of telling you whether it has rained. I live so resolutely apart from physical contingencies that my senses no longer trouble to inform me of them."

"My poor boy," said my father after Bloch had gone, "your friend is out of his mind. Why, he couldn't even tell me what the weather was like. As if there could be anything more interesting! He's an imbecile."
Reading it now, too, after having read so much Marx and Marxism, Soviet and revolutionary Chinese histories (that is to say, histories of peasant societies in rapid transformation), and most directly prior and relevant, TJ Clark, in his wonderful books about Manet and (read the year before) Courbet, talking about town and country in France in the second half of the 1800s, the sort of socio-geography of particularly Combray but all of the book's locations makes much more sense to me than they had before, which in turn makes things of the types that tend to be labeled "political" as well as things of the types that do not come much more clear.

It had been throughout the previous several years that I had read all that Marx and Marxism (and Soviet and Chinese histories), the previous several years that I had spent intensively reading all the Marx and Marxism and Communist histories that I had been taught my whole life there was no need to read, which changed everything. I've left very little written record of that period - scattered emails back and forth with Richard, who was doing much the same; a few notes in notebooks I never kept diligently - which is a shame because, in the absence of any Party which could reliably organize such education, I read things willy-nilly, in terribly wrong order (Lenin and Stalin are crucial but on the whole one really should not start with them! it really is better to have a solid grasp on dialectics - easy to attain! - before attempting to read Capital! - which I still haven't finished, incidentally), and it would be very interesting, if only to me, to be able to trace my misunderstandings as they slowly transformed into understanding.

Because of my having attained that grounding, or at least some degree thereof, and my having embarked on projects enabled by it, relatively little Marxism appears on my list of 2022 reading. There were the beautiful fragments of Gramsci and the elderly Engels, left unfinished in both cases because of death; there was the absolutely essential T. Mohr article Imperialism Today Is Conspiracy Praxis. I had been longing for an article like the latter for years - as I had written to Richard on December 7, 2019:

Train of thought off of this, development of imperialist finance capital over time, led me to think, my god, the first volume of Capital was in 1867, Imperialism was 1917, Neo-Colonialism was 1965. Essentially 50 years between each of them and we're now just over 50 years on from the Nkrumah. Just think about the massive changes in capitalism between each of them, that necessitated each of them. Obviously more is needed!! (And exists, though as far as I know not in anything like as condensed and singular a form.) It's not my main point to just rag on people but.... people still act like you can just read Imperialism and understand today. Obviously it helps but it's also obviously not going to be sufficient!! And then you get things like that (mostly very good) critique of queer theory using Marx's analysis of capital in his time as if THAT doesn't need to be updated! Even as it explicitly criticizes dogmatism [but then, I add now, it was written by a Trot, so what do you expect]. I guess I don't actually have a real point but I was just struck by those roughly equal time gaps and it just really drove the point home to me that theory needs to be constantly renewed.
T. Mohr's article is perhaps too brief and too much a scaffolding to qualify it as the successor to that line but it is a massive contribution and a necessary start.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

On October 7, 2021, I wrote in a notebook:

I tried to find a Picasso online that's reproduced in b&w in Krauss's Picasso Papers (Daix 685), to see the colors, and couldn't - but everything's online! Presumably it's because the original is in a private collection - which, that (Private Collection) could be a title for my story about the scholar who thinks he's discovered a secret music - are there "private collections" of sheet music that we've never been allowed to hear, live or recorded?

The opening measures of Brahms's 2nd serenade are beautiful, and more so when awkwardly plunked out on piano by two hands one of which is also trying to hold on to the Tovey book where they're reproduced in reduction (b&w?).

Why is Brahms so heavy? It's not orchestration, not too large an orchestra, as I thought - Serenade #2 with its no violins proves that. And it's not any reluctance to be dynamically startling (After Beethoven as one says) because no amount of muddy performance can entirely mask Beethoven's lightness/litheness in comparison - i.e., refuse to recognize his sforzandi, his fp's, etc, and they still struggle through. So it's not that.

What is it? He just doesn't move. Tovey is no help - I thought maybe he'd explain how we're in a different world now from LvB, and maybe tell me why it's good - but no - unless it's his comment on Brahms's "extended paragraphs" that I don't really understand.

Sometimes it's close, especially in the transition in and out of trios - ironically the continuity (of rhythm in the scherzo, of the ba DUH duh up-and-down figure in the quasi minuetto) helps him be lively in the changes.

On the 19th of the same month I wrote:

The finale of Brahms's 2nd symphony moves - like Beethoven moves, made possible by being like Haydn - though now I find I don't respond to it as well as I thought I might. The scherzo is light and lovely.

Two days later I anxiously added:

It's funny how I keep feeling a need to explain that my comments on Brahms don't mean I "don't like" him (though they are why I have a harder time with him, I think). In my own notebook! Of course it's possible I'll mis-remember my own experiences. Anyway I've come, quickly, to really love the 2nd symphony.

I guess this need to apologize, explain, disclaim, is why I'm not a Great Artiste!...?

Moby-Dick p 319, on sharks eating from a whale carcass: "How, at such an apparently unassailable surface, they contrive to gouge out such symmetrical mouthfuls, remains a part of the universal problem of all things."

On the 8th I had written:

I still don't understand atonal music or Perle but I just sat down at the piano to play the opening chords of Berg's Lyric Suite as reproduced in ch. 5 of The Listening Composer and was struck by how much sense the sound made, then read on and saw "I immediately recognized that the first three chords unfold tetrachordal segments of a single statement of the circle of fifths" - I went back and painstakingly worked out that yes, it is in fact that - overwhelmed by a simple realization of that's why it sounds like that.

REMEMBER that Perle, the goofball, suspects (p. 51-52) that Rimsky-Korsakov taught Stravinsky the octatonic (whole-note) scale that he "discovered" - in secret, a secret Stravinsky kept. Very a la Hockney - remember in connection with "private collection".

Two days later I returned to the notebook and wrote:

Kemp, Seen|Unseen p. 324: "this continuity of representational means disposes me to think that the 'conventions' of pictorial illusion work at a very deep level with the perceptual and cognitive structures we have acquired to make sense of what lies 'out there'. I recognize that they work better with appropriate cultural attuning, and will only arise as the result of particular sets of historical imperatives, but I do not think the basic mechanisms and visual potentialities are culturally constructed. There is a difference between cultural construction and cultural realization, and it is the later in which I believe." Relevant to tonality - but how and why exactly??

On September 25th I had written:

Beethoven is one of those miraculous figures like Marx, where given the progress(ion) of history it was inevitable that all these things would happen, get worked out, one way or another, eventually - but for it all to happen at once, in one person??

Nina Allan's tourbillon b/w Chris Marker on Vertigo...

Maelzel also made automated instruments??

On December 18 I would write:

Listening to Bruckner's 4th - first time, really, for me with him. All this emerging out of the haze. And I don't know what it's for, a problem that I only start having - slightly - with Brahms, and more and more after. I keep feeling that it's imploring/enjoining me to do something, I don't know what, but almost certainly something I don't want to do. (But do I only think this because I know how the Nazis loved him, later? Is that his fault, this music's fault? I tend to think probably?)

Nearly two weeks would pass before I would return to the notebook on the last day of 2021 and add:

But Tovey's defense of Bruckner is interesting, even touching ("Listen to it... with the humility you would feel if you overheard a simple old soul talking to a child about sacred things") and it's true that listening to the 4th with his help I came close to liking it. Wand's, too, is better than Chailly's, I think. (Though maybe I should hear Chailly's again before saying that.) I don't think I could love it as I came to with Haydn and Brahms (heard all four of the symphonies today) but I'm at least willing to allow that maybe - maybe - Hitler is not entirely his fault.

(Later: yes, Wand is better than Chailly.)

On the 3rd of that month I had written:

Nicholas Till quotes Goethe: "If you wish to advance into the infinite, explore the finite in all directions." Must find source - he cites it obnoxiously to just a volume of the (German!) complete works.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

On May 9, 2021, I wrote in a notebook:

Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 18 [and, I went on to discover, repeatedly throughout], uses photography as a metaphor to justify idealism - 1888. Almost as soon as this extremely material technology becomes available. That an "image" can be directly transformed into an "object" seems to prove that the real is a transformation of the ideal.

cf. Hockney, Secret Knowledge, p. 16: "We were also experimenting with different combinations of mirrors and lenses to see if we could re-create the ways in which Renaissance artists may have used them. The projections we made delighted everyone who came to the studio, even those with a camera in their hands. The effects seemed amazing, because they were unelectronic. The images we projected were clear, in colour, and they moved. It became obvious that few people know much about optics, even photographers. In medieval Europe projected 'apparitions' would be regarded as magical; as I found out, people still think this today."

Two days later I would note: "Per Hockney, in the 1400s, at least in the Netherlands, painters and mirror-makers were in the same guild."

On July 26, 2019, I had emailed Richard telling him how I'd heard someone who seemed to have reason to know what they were talking about explaining that smartphone manufacturers, rather than pay to test the quality of the lenses they put on their cameras, instead use lenses that are likely (but not known) to be poorly made and then use elaborate software to compensate for the poor-quality image: when you "take a picture" the camera actually very rapidly takes a large number of pictures and then uses some algorithm to combine them into a best guess at what a camera with a decent lens would have produced.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The other day, almost three years later, I remembered I had wanted to read more of her so I looked her up at my public library and was surprised to see every copy of every book they have by her is checked out, and each with multiple holds. Oh, did she die?, I thought. On January 29, 2020, I wrote in a notebook:
Annie Ernaux, Exteriors

Chronicle of the social by someone who has (unknowingly?) rejected the social?

A trajectory from Steve's "Munro Doctrine" to this to [what I thought while reading] Tove Jansson Summer Book - presuming to present the interiors of others is imperialism -> is a mistake -> is authorized by empathy and social relations.

Author's preface, pp. 7-8: "I have done my best not to express or exploit the emotion that triggered each text. On the contrary, I have sought to describe reality as through the eyes of a photographer and to preserve the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered. [...] In actual fact, I realize that I have put a lot of myself into these texts, far more than originally planned - memories and obsessions subconsciously dictating my choice of words and the scenes I wished to freeze. Moreover, I am sure that one can learn more about oneself by embracing the outside world than by taking refuge in the intimacy of a diary [...] It is other people - anonymous figures glimpsed in the subway or in waiting rooms - who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us."

1. Why is this "on the contrary"? (my own emotions/mystery and opacity of others)

2. Why is it only about "myself" that one seeks to learn?

3. Why do these "figures" remain "anonymous"? (because you've ruled out speaking to them from the beginning)

But this is an accurate representation of the book - its attempt, its failure, its interest. Which, that last comes primarily from the failure - e.g. it's not the description of the girl with ribbon in her hair auditioning or even of the nervousness of the parents that interests but rather (p. 23) "It was an old-fashioned dream come true in the heart of the New Town, with the rituals and pomp of yesteryear's salons. But the parents were not speaking to one another; each family wanted their own child to be the best, to fulfill the hope that one day he or she would belong to the elite, of which tonight they had witnessed only the theatricality."

On which point - she sees everything as a performance - people at the butchershop buying meat, people talking on the train, people begging (here she's correct) but also homeless man thoughtlessly exposing himself (insanely she thinks this is an expression of power!) - a symptom of isolation and of her class. Social life is a put-on, a fake.

It's also baked in to her methodology, "preserving opacity" etc - back to Steve, it's easy to mistake this as respect for one's "objects" but it becomes clear that in effect it treats them as existing for me - to the extent they have their own reason for their behavior it's to put on a show for me.

As with people so with objects - p. 78 "Our relationship to things is so moving" - It's an extreme commodity fetishism both in the true sense & how it can be misunderstood due to contemporary usage of "fetish" - e.g. of a fancy underwear store, pp. 85-86: "Wanting to have some of this beauty on one's skin is as legitimate as wanting to breathe fresh air." (Do I trust the choice of "legitimate" here or is it a dishonest stand-in for "natural"? What is the difference? At any rate it is not so much the applicability of a concept, "legitimacy" - of course it is legitimate to want to have beauty on one's skin - as the choice of comparison itself that strikes me.)

For all the attention to class and to workers at work (though all [?] service workers) and even the presence in the book (even if by absence) of the producers of commodities - pp. 66-67 the black woman in a boubou "whom one suspects has come to the wrong store [or... the wrong book?], who doesn't realize she is out of place," or the now demolished housing for "the immigrant population of the sixties" (p. 83) - she treats commodities as an "opaque" part of the world, natural, not products of labor.

p. 41 "In the newspaper Libération, the historian Jacques Le Goff remarked: 'The subway is quite a curiosity.' Would the people who commute every day feel the same way about the Collège de France? There is no way of knowing." As sarcasm it's a decent line, in the style of a dunk, but again: Why is there no way of knowing? Class, access to media, sure, of course; but also once again because you've ruled out talking to people.

So ultimately though she's not treating people as commodities, she is essentially treating them the same way - opaque objects which function only in relation to me, and which are otherwise mute. Dramatic display of the fundamental problems with this type of approach!
The first sentence of that last paragraph was obviously mangled somehow en route from brain to paper, but the point is as clear as it's going to be, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

On February 12, 2020, I wrote in a notebook:
It's Wednesday now but some thoughts on the two concerts I went to Sunday-

[Redacted so as not to be cruel to amateurs] was like a caricature of what someone who thinks classical concerts are boring would expect. They ran through crowd pleasers (Chopin something-or-other, Rachmaninoff Vocalise) with high-end amateur technical competence but absolutely unengaging - of course the saving grace of a crowd pleaser should be that it pleases the crowd, and of an amateur, passion (not to be overly etymological), but there was none of that here. (Well, the crowd might have been pleased, I don't know - classical audiences are always a little difficult for me but this one, I've never felt more estranged from an audience I was in before - they somehow gave off malevolent vibes... Which I'd say might have been just me, my mood, but the earlier crowd didn't feel that way... Maybe I just felt an interloper in what is after all an insular little club. Anyway.)

And before that, a different kind of unengagement - "Cello Festival" at the RISD museum, which I left early to go to the other - saw two soloists. First did a very solid, respectable, and (yes) engaging run through the first Bach suite (another crowd pleaser), but the second, who was clearly a technically excellent and passionate cellist, played four contemporary works - one that was left off the program and I don't remember what it was, ägäische eisberge by Klaus Lang, Three High Places by John Luther Adams, and /hiə(r)/ by an "Inga" who was in the audience (I think a Brown student). The only of those composers I'd heard of before was Adams, and to be sure his was the most engaging of the set, but overall the impression left by all of them is what a cul de sac contemporary classical is in. I'm sure all of them had their reasons for moving through time the way they did, but they just came across as here's a sound... and here's a sound... and here's another sound. Or here's a thing cello can do, here's another... music as printer test page.

It's this whole world of contemporary classical that has completely turned its back on engaging. Yes it has its audience but that's not what I mean - even for those who appreciate I feel like the experience is still of being lectured at, not spoken with.

Engagement with people is what music should be, of course! But classical at least seems to have split into two worlds - refusing to engage, or engaging solely by means of banality. The only other tendency I'm aware of having any presence at all is minimalism (in all this I keep thinking about the other John Adams - the composer, not the president or the president - talking about being trained that tonality was an artificial structure that had run its course but eventually coming to the realization that tonality truly is a force of nature - which I read with relief! It gave me permission to feel the same way! You can understand a 12-tone series; you can feel tonality - which of course is not to say that it's the only feel-able system). But minimalism is its own cul de sac.

What I'm struggling hazily to link in here - I think it's obvious but I'm not quite finding the place to make it obvious - is that of course the "people" this music has always primarily been created for are not "the people" at all (watching Gosford Park thinking about how all these successive ruling classes have had all this beautiful work created on their behalf when no one is more philistine and less capable of appreciating it) - actually take that out of parentheses because here's more - thinking of the ruling classes having this glorious music as a private entertainment they actually disdain (but can't do without) which at some point transitions to what I saw at [the concert described first] - their lower echelons, at least, sitting in ritual silence as they respectfully and tastelessly attend to musicians capable of hitting all the notes but incapable of actually conveying anything about (or of) this music to anyone.

Of course maybe I just saw a bad concert. But what made me want to try to get these thoughts down (unsuccessfully) now days later is that I'm listening to Schnittke's first concerto grosso, and Wow! - Schnittke himself, as far as I can tell, was a grotesque anticommunist, your typical counterrevolutionary Artiste who loves then to whine about how oh even my Art has been commodified - well, whose fault is that? But for me his music sometimes seems to solve, or at least sidestep, the problem. This concerto grosso is not banal, and is nothing if not engaging! I had this giddy "This is how it can be done!" moment when it began. More soberly I realize a good deal of what creates that impression is how he recycles the past - "concerto grosso", after all, and that string quartet that quotes Orlando di Lasso and the big fugue of Beethoven - which does not bode well as a route out of any cul de sac... And yet. And yet!

More recently, having totally forgotten Schnittke (how things vanish), I had the precise same experience with, look at that, John (non-Luther) Adams, Absolute Jest with all its Beethoven quotation, which suggests to me that, oh no, maybe it's just that I get a kick out of pastiche, collage?

More recently I've found very inspiring on this - and smarter about class and its relation to music than I was in 2020 - the written words of Hans Werner Henze, whose music however I struggle to engage with.

At any rate back in 2020 I was both onto something and perhaps not onto anything. Only about a month after these concerts the organization that put on the cello festival ceased to do live performances at all, along with everyone else. When they returned half-assedly they demanded performers and audiences hide their faces, and as far as I know to this day they still require "proof of vaccination" to attend their concerts, the few of them that they actually still put on, with them having permanently embraced the ditigal, to my knowledge ("as far as I know" and "to my knowledge" because when I wrote them to object to the mandatory pharmaceutical policy they silently removed me from their mailing list and the feeling is mutual). I don't know what the other group did or is doing now.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The question, of course, is whether to delete everything or go through it all and hand-repudiate each post individually. Probably I will do neither. The next question is whether I should post anything new.