The violin as a post-modern space

bananasSince my last trip to the symphony, I’ve been thinking about the violin as a postmodern space. And maybe even the first postmodern space. When I say this, I imagine everyone nodding their heads and murmuring “Hm,” rocking forward in their chairs to show their assent.

But this doesn’t always happen, so I’ll have to explain what I mean.

And I can’t just show everyone this clip of Joshua Bell playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with a youth orchestra from like the Land of Oz, and expect people to be convinced. (Seriously, though, if I could find a way to blog about how rad their costumes are–red pants, white sneakers and all, without things getting too esoteric, I would.)

It has something to do with the bidirectionally of bowing, of course, and with the textures at the violinist’s disposal (I’m thinking of pizzicato). It’s about the elegance of a sustained note (and a technology that allows for sustained tone), and the harmonic possibilities (because aren’t strings narratives, and don’t they comment on each other?) If you listen to the Tchaikovsky concerto, find the moments when the sky-piercing arpeggiating is punctuated by earthy, guttural groans, only to return to the soaring lines of super-generous melody we have come to expect. It’s like you can hear, in distinct movements of time, both the hurricane clouds of resin that rise above the stage as pure as breath and the thundering whinnying of the horses whose tails, yes, have been knitted together into that great bow of fate, the threads of life.

One might argue that this isn’t true, but it’s mostly true at least. That’s all I’m saying. Only a postmodern space could have this much potential for thematic connection. It’s like a cup of coffee. I mean, strings used to be made out of a material called “catgut.” How does this not question the familiarity of falsified barn imagery in our nation’s service economy?

And I’ll try to be even clearer.

A postmodern space
1. Involves a context than can be part of a larger context. A postmodern space can also include other contexts within it, but this is like dividing by zero–probably shouldn’t be attempted even though historians and people I disagree with do it all the time.
2. Can possibly not be explained without recourse to some sort of jargon. Words like “narratives,” “myths,” and “bodies” (all plural). I also like the phrase “in relationship to.”
3. Clothes abstract concepts in concrete sounding words. Like when people talk about square footage when they mean to talk about relationships. Or men’s or women’s bodies when they are really talking about ethics and don’t care about the body. This is up for dispute, but I think our society is more dualist than we prefer to realize.

Other notable postmodern spaces:

Dinosaur stickers. They combine notions of childhood, representation, and the interplay between children’s and dinosaurs’ bodies in both home and school. They are a winner.

Any word your professor writes on the board. It’s not just about the dry-erase ink and the conversation it initiates about the place of irony in a technologically equipped university classroom (I had a classmate who once said, “Your presentation is so old school Dr. M–.” I also had a professor who referred to the marker as “ce machin-truc.”) It’s also about how your professor circles the Greek prefixes in order to invite you into a time of cultural sharing.

Nonpostmodern spaces:

A dishwasher. You’d think something found in a discourse community as rich as a kitchen would be a postmodern space. But it isn’t. Everything has a place in a dishwasher, and there is usually one right way to do things. Even when people do different things with dishwashers, like cook salmon in them (seriously, though, check it out), it’s always with functionality and efficiency in mind. As opposed to storytelling, semiotics, and, like the subversion of something.

Nonpostmodern spaces that think they are postmodern spaces:

A banana. Everyone knows they have potassium.

But a bunch of bananas! Now that’s a different story.


Growing with representation

I’ve gone back to it every five years or so since, and every time I see something new. When I was an anxious, aspiring teenager, it seemed to be all about the anxieties and aspirations of youth. In my twenties, stumbling through misbegotten love affairs, it seemed to be about the meaning of love and marriage. In my thirties, establishing my career as a writer, the novel seemed to offer cautionary insight into how one might or might not achieve one’s ambitions. By the time I was forty, conscious of the doors of youth closing behind me, the book seemed to offer a melancholy insight into the resignations of middle age. -Rebecca Mead

I’ve been playing the piano for a radio play version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And the show is very good.

I didn’t have high hopes, though. The first time I was induced to watch the movie, I was nine, and I barely got through it by reading the entirety of E.B. White’s Stuart Little in between the “interesting scenes.” These scenes were very few.

As I grew up, I’d watched the movie several times since–it’s unavoidable, and apart from Jimmy Stewart’s performance, I never felt like there was much to the movie.

But this time around, I notice new things. I’m suddenly struck by the relationship between George and Mary in their high school years, which feels both nostalgic and electric. I feel for George in his competing desires to get out and see the world and to make his hometown a better place. I see the loneliness in the characters (especially the women) who wait around for something to happen. I am even drawn to the context of financial struggle in a movie that seems so often to be about banking and home ownership.

In My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead discusses her changing relationship with her favorite novel as she has grown older. She observes that when she reread Middlemarch in her early thirties, the familiar characters, their choices, their temptations, their crises–which were were resonant when she first lived with them as a teenager, felt increasingly “urgent” to her as a grown-up.

This is how I feel about the characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Seven or eight years ago, I would have ridiculed the idea that what felt like a silly holiday movie could “contain so much of life itself.” Now I’m on board. And apparently a lot more sentimental.

What does this mean for the artist, or I should really say, what has this meant for the artist–to recognize that our representations of life are so connected to the viewer’s experiences as he or she grows older?

It’s a different kind of relationship between art and time than I normally think about.

When I get to be a composer…

the_prophet_jeremiah_mourning_over_the_destruction_of_jerusalem_1630_XX_amsterdam_the_netherlands“When I get to be a composer,” says Langston Hughes in what is arguably his most beautiful poem, “I’m gonna write me some music about/Daybreak in Alabama.”

These opening lines arrest me at each reading, and its closing is no less breathtaking. Since I first read this poem when I was fourteen, I’ve been soaking up these words.

And sometimes–and be advised the rest of this post may have little to do with serious and deeply spiritual tone of the poem, I think in this formula: “When I get to be a…” And I re-envision my life aspirations.

Here are some recent examples.

When I get to be a choreographer, I’ll compose movement to a Palestrina motet like this one (Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet). Each voice will be represented by a different dancer. I’ll imagine the glowing precision of polyphonic texture carved by human bodies in space.

When I get to be an academic, I will publish an article on Joseph Conrad’s storyteller Marlow as a gay voice. Not that Marlow himself can possibly be gay per se, but that his voice can be placed on a historical continuum. This article has been written before, no doubt, so I’ll probably have to make some outlandish claim, possibly focusing on the role of the outcast in society and debate whether outsiders serve to subvert or to perpetuate the patriarchy. I’ll overuse words like “narratives” and “topoi” and will rarely refer to Marlow except as a narrative device. It will be a shame, because I think Marlow seems so real to us and our affection for him is so deep.

When I get to be a performance artist, I’ll wear the tatters of a California flag and sing toothpaste jingles. I’ll invite the audience to brush my teeth. It will be considered political.

When I get to be an avalanche, I’ll wrap the corners of my frosty white blanket around the silences of my mountain and we’ll sing gently together into sleep. Skiers will climb my dreams.

When I get to be a writer, I will write things down that make me flinch, and then I’ll probe deeper. I will find the hope in my everyday journeys, and I will liken them to long walks we take, trudging through muddy grass because we had been waiting so long for the rain to come again. And when I step through the door, stomping off my boots, I’ll look at the last page I’ve written and keep remembering to be thankful.

“In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
In Alabama.”

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

This is a tell-all post. article-1211066-0647B7C0000005DC-993_468x526

The other day, a friend of mine suggested that I write about hanging out with her brother, whom I shall call “Robbin.”

Yes, I thought. What a great idea. Until I considered how little I knew him and how ambiguous our time together has been.

I realized that should I choose to write about my time with Robbin, it was going to have to be a little more complicated than any of us had expected.

The good

The first time I hung out with Robbin, he was sitting on the uncomfortable brown floor of my parents’ living room. When my mom asked him if college was all that he expected it would be, he said, “I don’t know! I don’t really ever have expectations.” This was a plus in my book. I never have expectations either. I perceived a connection to him already. (I also tend to empathize with younger brothers of older sisters.) Off to a great start.

He was also kind to my own little brother that same night–especially when my brother misunderstood something he said. I called my little brother out on it. Robbin is way too classy for that.

The bad
I started to hear indications or rumors of indications that Robbin’s character was not all it’s cracked up to be. For one, people rarely mention Robbin without rolling their eyes. But what could this mean? Second, his sister once joked that as the youngest in the family, Robbin’s parents did not “raise him to be” any particular profession. A lowering of standards, of expectations? And had Robbin done anything to deserve his sister’s cynicism? I still side with the younger brother, of course. Older siblings are always finding ways to be jealous of us. But, knowing what I know now, there could be something to it.

We also played a game together one night that involved holding an iPad over one’s head and shaking it. Really, Robbin? Is this as fun as it gets? Again, it’s a maybe. The game ended up being kind of entertaining–once we could all sign in. But that probably wasn’t his fault.

The ugly
My brother now attends the same college as Robbin. The summer before his first semester, I asked Robbin: “Will you look out for my brother?” There are many generous and even generously noncommittal ways to respond to a question like this.

“I don’t know. If I see him,” is how Robbin answered me.

Maybe he didn’t understand what it means to look out for someone.

What I’d rather write about

And it’s a shame, because his family is so wonderful.

What do you think? Do you have someone in your life that you barely know whom you have mixed feelings about? Tell us what it’s like!

“I’m just a participant in the cookies.”

“Wait, did you make the cookies?”
“No. I’m just a participant in the cookies.”

Tonight during my group Bible study of the book of Amos* I tasted a sugar cookie that took me to a new place, an old place.

As I bit into it, my journey must have glowed on my face, because someone asked how I liked it. “It’s speaking to me,” I said.

Everyone laughed. Then someone asked what the cookie was saying to me.

Of course I didn’t have an answer–not because cookies, when they do speak, transcend our limited human idiom or are simply too vague, but because I was just repeating what I heard a girl say once when she ate a piece of fudge.

But to be honest, there was a deeper reality than I could let on. The cookie took me back to a junior high Christmas party. Hot chocolate and kitchen tiles. Waiting for my parents to pick me up. Sugar cookie after sugar cookie in a neat circle on a Santa Claus plate.

The thing is, sugar cookies have always felt to me like a transgression. My parents never made them. We never bought them at Food 4 Less.

While there may be more to be said about sinking one’s teeth into a freshly (or not so freshly) baked holiday sugar cookie–something about new experiences, coming of age, the feeling of trespass and being at home at the same time, what have you–my tasting of this sugar cookie tonight can perhaps be best expressed by a line from Elizabeth Browning’s famous sonnet.

I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs

This is what it means to be alive. This is what it means to remember.

What do you think? Have you eaten something that tasted good lately? Tell me about it, and I’ll give you a poem to read.

*Amos. If you are troubled by my seeming ease in going on and on about eating a cookie while studying one of the most urgent social justice texts of the Ancient Near-East, you are right.


“Every limit is an end as well as a beginning.” – Eliot
“This is the world’s limit we have come to.” – Aeschylus

When I was 18, my cousin and I wrote a play imagining the two of us getting married (to different people) and the family gathering that surrounded the ceremonies. A lot of things happened in this play–acts of terrorism, Shakespeare puns, scripture exposition–but what seemed more significant and in-your-face were our ideas about the relational dynamics of our changing family. And as 18-year-olds, we were loose perspectiveless cannons. That is why so much of the mob violence, Elizabethan soliloquies, and sermons (including the worship song “First of All Pure”–I can send you the chords) were directed at one member of our family in particular. And why we spent so much time imagining what it would be like to fall in love with future fiancés only to kill our lovers off. One of our marriages, if I remember correctly, still happened.

In any case, the prolog to our play opened with the above quotations. (There was also one from the book of Job, which is too serious to include here. Not that I don’t consider George Eliot’s cannon to be a scripture.) And sometimes when I think of beginnings I think of these quotes.Unknown

I also think of possible new names for a blog.

Possible new names for a blog

“One fish two fish”

“Bromethius Bound”

“I would tweet this”

“S–t on John’s mind”

“Heart flown out the bosom”

“One ginger/No soul”

Well you’ve asked for it, Ryan. Here it is.