Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Very Greek Weekend

Of course, Holy Trinity St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church hosted the Panegyri this weekend, easily the best of Cincinnati's church festivals, fundraising events marked by such approved ecclesiastical activities as gambling and binge drinking. The Panegyri exceeds other church festivals by offering delicious Greek cuisine: gyros, kabobs of various sorts, baklava, feta cheese pizza and loukoumathes, delicious bits of fired dough dipped in cinnamon and honey.

I watched the film Zorba the Greek this Friday. The film falls squarely into the category of unlikely friendship stories, with the vivacious and aging peasant Zorba (Anthony Quinn) unexpectedly persuading mannered English writer Basil (Alan Bates) to allow him to tag along on a trip to Crete. The film is essentially a vehicle for Quinn, whose spirited depiction of Zorba overwhelms everything else on screen, making for alternately invigorating and tedious viewing experience.

Finally, I finished reading Robert Fagels's Homer's Iliad this weekend. I had previously "read" the epic in four days as a high school summer assignment. A few observations: War is something that arises from the conflicting desires of personalities human and divine, not from social conditions, geography or ideology. There is a sense in which human actions are futile, subjected to the manipulations of the gods, which in turn are sometimes dictated by Fate. Homer's descriptive focus in battle is on the outcomes of individual combats, not on military whole, and he glorifies the acts of slaughter. These sequences are often dull. He clearly depicts the honor and heroism of fighters on both sides. It is impossible not to be stirred by the plight of Hector, the Trojan who fights for the honor of his city and the protection of his family. Simultaneously, one is reviled by the selfish rage of Achilles and the manipulations of Agamemnon. To this reader, the epic is much too long, the descriptions of combat absurdly repetitive. I think that one could get the spirit of the thing reading only the following of the 24 books: 1-9, 14, 16-17, 19, 22, 24.

My reading of the Iliad came on the heels of my rereading of The Epic of Gilgamesh, another work I disliked in high school. Gilgamesh's quest for immortality in easily digestible in a single sitting, and its musings on human accomplishment and mortality are relatively simple. My sense is that after this reading, I have learned almost all of what there is to learn from the epic.

Currently about halfway through the second Wheel of Time novel - so far much better than the first.

"There's Blood in the Trunk"

Today is a happy day, as the new self-titled Wilco is out. Arising from the collapse of alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, Wilco has crafted one of the deepest and most accessible catalogues in indie rock, successfully integrating experimentalist and classicist components and embracing prettiness through times when it was unfashionable. While none of Wilco's work is especially difficult, I recommend the album "Summerteeth" as a starting place for new listeners.

Bull Black Nova - Wilco

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Been Hit With a Few Shells, But I Don't Walk With a Limp"

A true classic of my generation concludes guilty pleasure week:

In Da Club - 50 Cent

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"You Make the Water Warm"

Cool enough not to care about your judgment.

Digital Bath (LP Version) - Deftones

Contest Announced

Since sitemeter tells me that the blog has a substantial number of regular readers but zero comments, I am announcing the following contest. Hopefully it generates some response. The goal is to find the most unpleasant person to have over for dinner. Participants must submit a description of the person that is available elsewhere online. I will judge the entries and select one as the winner within five days.

A few restrictions are necessary. Famous public figures are excluded. I'm sure that Kim Jong Il is an awful dinner guest, but we can be a bit more creative. Furthermore, people that readers know personally are excluded. Awkward Table is one of my favorite car games, but we aren't playing it here and my days of insulting friends and acquaintances in writing are long past. Finally, the description you submit should speak for itself.

Here is the contest's first entry:

Chris Kraus is the author of the novels I Love Dick, Aliens & Anorexia, and Torpor, and a collection of essays, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. She teaches in the graduate program of the San Francisco Art Institute.

Happy Hunting!

Friday, June 26, 2009

"Spark My Nature"

Not a guilty pleasure, but necessary today.

P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) - Michael Jackson

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My First Demo

I'm proud to suspend guilty pleasure week for one day to post my first recorded demo, a song called "I Only Fall in Love", written several months ago. I don't have the software to sync different tracks, so I recorded guitar and vocals simultaneously, which is very difficult. As one might infer from my songwriting principles, most of the song is fictional.

You can download the song from this free hosting site. I'm investigating better ways to host these. Enjoy, and expect more in the future!


Great Tab Website

I've now been playing guitar for about a year (reflections to come soon), and 90% of the music I've learned has come from guitar tablature websites. For the uninitiated, guitar tablature is a written music system that represents pitches as positions on guitar strings rather than as notes on a staff. Because the guitar offers multiple ways to voice many notes and chords, and because the means of finding pitches on a guitar is unintuitive, guitar tablature is much easier for most guitarists to read than traditional staff notation. It is much more difficult to depict rhythms on guitar tab than on traditional staff notation, so guitar tabs in books and magazines are often accompanied by rhythm staves.

Whatever its advantages, guitar tab often goes sour on the internet. Most tabs are transcribed from recorded music by amateurs, and so are inaccurate, incomplete, or dramatically simplified from the original recordings. While many tab sites have rating systems for users to assess the accuracy and completeness of tabs, these are only somewhat helpful, and tracking down the most accurate tab for a given song is often time-consuming.

Last night, while searching for a tab of the Dire Straits song "Romeo and Juliet" in its original Open D tuning, I found this tab site, which is easily the best I encountered. Not only are the tabs very accurate, the applets will play through MIDI recordings of individual instrumental tracks, which are often difficult to pick out on regular recordings. Their selection is good, though not overwhelming and they have only one tab for each song. Furthermore, their tabs require no special software to use, unlike many other sites. Pretty cool.

In Praise of the Loveland Bike Trail

I can't say enough good things about the Loveland Bike Trail, site of a 38-mile ride that I took Monday. The paving is immaculate, the grade is level and trees provide unobstructive shade throughout. One might complain that the scenery offers little variety and that the ride isn't very challenging in itself, but for a lengthy and relaxing ride, the Loveland trail's 55 miles are hard to beat.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"You Can Do It Very Well"

Guiltiest pleasure yet? Father, please don't cut off my inheritance.

Shake Your Booty - KC & The Sunshine Band

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Given the glut of quiz results to which facebook subjects me every time I log in, I can't see any harm in contributing something of my own, an online quiz I wrote in high school, when I thought that anything self-referential was inherently witty.

Most Awesome Quiz Ever LOL

"Cool Drink of Water, Such a Sweet Surprise"

I have an inexplicable affection for this song.

Cherry Pie - Warrant

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Moving in Circles, Won't You Dilate?" - Guilty Pleasure Week

For the next seven days, the blog will feature songs that seem to oppose my stated aesthetic preferences. Four years of college athletics have taught me that some otherwise execrable tunes fuel exercise quite nicely. Other tunes just walk that fine line between stupid and clever very well.

Worth noting that the lead singer for this band did the theme of one of my favorite films from childhood, The Neverending Story.

Too Shy - Kajagoogoo

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Strange Dream/Songwriting Principles

Last night I dreamt that I was riding on a schoolbus, seated next to my friend Daniel Hong, who was detailing his attempt to win an American guitar competition by mastering a song called "Evil Ideal" and another tune by a group called The New Raisiennes. An odd dream in part because Daniel does not play the guitar, and also because both the song and band seemed oddly familiar. "Evil Ideal" - Siouxie and the Banshees, maybe? The New Raisiennes - did they just tour with M83? According to google searches, neither the song nor the band exist. I then decided that "Evil Ideal" was indeed an excellent name for a song, and I have begun to write it. However, this is almost certainly the final mention of The New Raisiennes.

This leads me to some notes on the way that I write songs, and the way that I think songs ought to be written, boiled down to three principles. A disclaimer is necessary. None of my songs have ever been professionally recorded, and I've only performed them in front of groups containing mostly friends who are obligated to like them, so I really don't know what I'm talking about. On the other hand, I know what I hate, and I don't hate all of the songs I've written.

First principle: Songs should derive from a musical or lyrical phrase.

This almost seems trivial. After all, what else is popular music? The most striking feature of a popular song is usually the hook, paired with lyrics or purely instrumental. But this stands in contrast to the idea that songs should derive from interesting topics or from strong emotions. While these can fuel a song's development, most successful pop songs discuss a very small number of topics and convey a limited range of emotions, and even those that venture into more unusual territory are grounded in a brief and memorable phrase. Consider such political anthems as "The Times, They Are a-Changin'" "Born in the USA" and "Shipbuilding". A song called "The Government Sucks", no matter how deeply felt and well-argued, will always be a bad song.

Similarly, writing to express a particular emotion usually goes badly, because complete expression takes precedence over the musical aspects of the song. Songs aren't poems, but quoth Wilde, "All bad poetry is sincere". Again, songs can be emotionally expressive, but they don't need to start there. This leads to the...

Second Principle: Don't be afraid to make things up.

When I write songs, I usually treat them as fiction with a first person narrator. There are a number of songs told in third person, but these are not the norm, and I've never written one. It's too difficult and too boring to retell one's life in rhyme and meter. Even if the gist of song is autobiographical, make up the details. Two of my favorite song genres, the torch song and the woman done wronged me song offer ample opportunities for embellishment and fantasy. Suppose I'm writing a song in the latter genre, and the most recent woman who "wronged me" was simply boring. Rather than detailing how boring she was, I'll sing about how she took all my money and ran off with my best friend. Great songwriters and pop singers are musical scriptwriters and actors, not diarists.

Third Principle: Lyrics don't need to make sense.

I'm not a huge fan of total nonsense lyrics (see: Red Hot Chili Peppers), but songs need not express great truths, nor attain narrative completion. Consider my all-time favorite song "Strawberry Fields Forever". "No one I think is in my dream/I mean it must be high or low." The line between cryptic and meaningless is fine, but one that a good songwriter must almost certainly learn to walk. And it is absolutely unnecessary that a song be coherent - verses need relate to one another at most loosely and conclusions are thoroughly optional.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thoughts On The Eye of the World

After reading the first book in the Inheritance series a couple of years ago, I wrote a scathing review in the form of a parody entitled "Boy-Turned-Hero and the Epic Battle". As much a general parody of epic medievalist fantasy as of Eragon, the review would be appropriate for hundreds of novels, and through the first two hundred or so pages of Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World, the first novel in his Wheel of Time series, I thought that a reposting might be in order.

The novel's first proper chapter introduces us to unassuming young male hero of uncertain parentage Rand al'Thor. The setting is a secluded community of farms and villages on the eve of the most exciting event of these poor yokels' lives, the annual Bell Tine festival. The festivities are disrupted by the attack of horrid cloaked figures, Myrddraal, and belligerent dark creatures, Trollocs, apparently pursuing Rand and his young friends. Their escape, facilitated by a wise magic-wielder, leads to a lengthy quest narrative that lacks a quest beyond self-preservation. The characters run through a series of repetitive encounters with Trollocs, Myrddraal and other allies of dark overlord Shai'tan. For the first 500 pages, nearly every character, location and plot point appears to be stolen from Tolkien.

What kept me intrigued through these 500 pages was the promise of the novel's prologue, detailing the aftermath of Lews Therin Telamon's crazed violence against his family and encounter with the dark overlord some 3000 years prior to the novel's primary narrative. The prologue's opening paragraphs are deliciously overwritten: "The place still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air...Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved. "Ilyena! My love, where are you?" The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman, her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moment, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief." I was initially attracted to The Wheel of Time because I hoped for precisely this sort of titanic scale, not the routine cat and mouse game that the novel becomes.

Fortunately, the novel's lousy first half does begin to reveal the tremendous metaphysical contrivances of Jordan's world, which seem to draw equally from Mayan and Gnostic influences. The series title derives from an actual wheel that weaves the threads representing living creatures into a great pattern of interactions. The wheel weaves in several reoccurring ages, each of which is characterized by a certain type of events - great heroics, madness, decline of grandeur, etc. The universe, the work of a deistic Creator, plays out as a continuous conflict between the Light, a goodness that seems to be more aura than person, and the dark one, Shai'tan. The metaphysics seem fundamentally materialistic - Shai'tan is physically imprisoned, the prison sealed by physical substances, and his *spoiler* temporary defeat at the novel's end comes about by defeat in a battle that occurs in the same domain as other world events. Matter, at least in the age of the novel's events, is sometimes inherently evil.

The novel's mythology is impressive, and when it is finally brought into play alongside the primary plot in the last 200 pages or so, the results are impressive. It seems that Jordan wanted to introduce the strangeness of his world slowly, first acclimating readers with familiar fantasy trappings, but this backfires, because he is much more comfortable in his own skin than in Tolkien's. The prose itself is unexceptional, only occasionally empbarassing, as in "Her horse slept, too, head down and legs spraddled in the manner of horses." Try as he might, Jordan never gives his world the sense of wonder or beauty that Tolkien gave Middle Earth. However, the final segments of the novel prove that he can tell a compelling story, and I look forward to reading the next novel, The Great Hunt, sometime soon.

"Forget Your English Grammar, Cause You Don't Really Give a Damn about This Year's Girl"

There are many songwriters I admire, but only two or three with whom I identify - I hear one of their songs and think, "The guy who wrote this is probably a lot like me." Elvis Costello is one.

This Years Girl - Elvis Costello