Notes on Composing

  1. If I go to sleep thinking “what a load of shit, what a wasted evening,” I can usually count on waking up the next morning loving last night’s work. (The opposite is also true).
  2. If I’m doing it as a work-for-hire, and thereby giving up the copyright, there’s a good chance it’ll be my finest work ever. (The opposite is also true).
  3. If I’m writing symphonies over breakfast and conducting them with my spoon–there’s a good chance that I’m cluelessly stealing from something I heard too many times as a reference track two years ago. (i.e., that time I stole an entire guitar solo from Duran Duran and didn’t know it until years later).

Mumford: The Obstacle of Animism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine
Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine

While the natural world came as a great inspiration for technology (hornets nests: paper; rolling logs: wheels; lungs: bellows), technological development could only proceed slowly until the machine could be dissociated from living things. Airplanes were unsuccessful so long as they were designed to have bird (Leonardo da Vinci) or bat (Clement Ader) wings, bodies, and motion; Giovanni Branca’s human-shaped steam-engine was a nonstarter. In the meantime, circular motion, which we find infinitely useful, is only rarely seen in nature—perhaps most often by humans dancing. Dissociating life from actions resulted in the arm becoming a crane, firelight becoming electric light, human and animal work becoming mechanical work.

God, as clockmaker, had created and set an orderly world. If the world was nothing but God’s creation, wrapped in symbolism, and the Church the only path to the absolute, then there was no place for mechanical understanding or development unless Earth and Heavens could be divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that division became clear—there, the Heavens and the soul of man, and here, the earth. But even the monastery may be considered mechanical: its sterile environment, separate from the earthly world, temptations removed, strict rules and minimized irregularity as the self is replaced by the collective. A machine. And like a machine, it was “incapable of self-perpetuation except by renewal from without.” Hence, a great number of scientific discoveries came from monks. Further, Christianity’s teachings that the body is sinful, vile, and corrupt, to be mortified and subdued, meant that rather than celebrate the body, as pagans once did (gigantic symbols of fertility, etc.), it would be reasonable to move away from the body and toward the machine. Even as the Church would declare machines the work of the Devil, it “was creating the Devil’s disciples.”
The machine came about most quickly wherever the body was destroyed: monasteries, mines, and battlefields. It came about more slowly in places that gave life: agriculture.

Mumford: Space, Distance, Movement (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

hereford_mapCultures can be differentiated by their unique conceptions of space and time. Europe in the Middle Ages understood space and time in terms of arbitrary, religion-based symbolism. For instance, medieval cartography presents land masses and water as arbitrary shapes (see the Hereford Map), related to each other allegorically. Further, time was understood as something fluid, where in storytelling the past is happening now, so that it’s realistic to the medievel mind to transport a story from a thousand years ago into the present, or as in Botticelli’s The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, where three different times are presented at once. The result of this was the ability to understand what we presently only understand using science–ship’s drop off the horizon, demons drop down chimneys. Things in the world come and go in the same way as adults come and go in the eyes of children–things are all either mysteries or miracles. All things make sense through religion–“the true order of space was Heaven, even as the true order of time was Eternity.”

boticelliBetween the 14th and 17th centuries, space “as a hierachy of values” was replaced by “space as a system of magnitudes.” In painting, horizons, vanishing points, and visual relationships between things replaced symbolic relationships between things. Size no longer corresponded to divine proportions, but to distance, objects in relationship to one another. This meant a need to understand the world accurately. Space would now be measured in the same way time was measured with a clock. To understand something would be to place it, and to time it–how long to get there? By placing things geographically, there was now an incentive to explore and discover the world. And by graphing out the world, even while incomplete or inaccurate, there was now a basis of expectations, rather than the navigationally useless maps of the Middle Ages. Explorers did not need to hug the shoreline, as in the old maps, but could now launch into the open seas and return to roughly where they began. Eden and Heaven were no longer to be found on maps. The concepts of space and time require us to begin, arbitrarily, with here and now–their conquest is through measurement, and through their conquest, scientific advancement. And in conquering space and time, the importance of numbers and counting grew.

Samuel Fuller: The Naked Kiss (1964)

naked kissIt’s been a while since I really talked out of my ass. Let’s do this!

So–briefly, I dedicated my life to filmmaking. I made one film, which was enough to teach me I never wanted to make another one ever again—because filmmaking involves working with other people, and other people suck—specifically, other people who write uninspired, faux-gritty, noir-inspired scripts that can only be read as vehicles for overacting. Me? I worshipped Godard and Truffaut’s early work—particularly Breathless with its self-referential film noir qualities…so you can guess how our relationship played out. (I cut him out of production by keeping him out of the loop).

Anyway, I had this 40-minute masterpiece, back when I was confident enough to sneak into dirty hotel rooms and scream at my actors (complete strangers) “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NUDITY?” “OF COURSE YOU NEED TO PISS ON CAMERA INTO THE BATHTUB—AND YOU’RE DRINKING BEERS UNTIL YOU CAN SQUEEZE SOMETHING OUT!” I miss being confident and always right. Anyway, my masterpiece got edited down by the now-back-in-the-loop producer to, like, 10 minutes of crap since I wouldn’t use his neo-noir script, and the resulting crap won 4th place in a competition for grad students (I was all of 18 years old)—which, when I was informed of this on the last day of class, resulted in me cussing out the class for being such idiots, and quitting the film department.

One of the things we used to study was self-reflective films—and it all came rushing back to me when I watched Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. The self-reflective scene? When the over-acting cop undergoes an unexpected change of heart and acting ability, and tells the prostitute that the film can never end unless she stops over-acting also…in not so many words. She tones it down, the little girl confesses, and the movie ends.

Is it noir? I guess so. Fuller was associated with Fritz Lang at least as far back as the 1940s, removing us to the theatrical roots of German expressionism, so to some extent making the works of Fuller quintessentially pure noir.

Here’s the bottom line—I think Fuller’s Naked Kiss is pure schlock. Considering it from a collegiate standpoint, we’d probably focus in on undercurrent of childhood/motherhood/where babies come from:

  • ex-prostitute
  • begins film bald like a newborn baby
  • ends up sharing a room with a man—who happens to just be a sewing mannequin
  • becomes assistant in hospital for disabled children
  • weeps when she looks at a baby
  • pays her friend to skip town and secretly have her baby rather than abort it
  • reveals that she’s unable to have children
  • falls in love with guy over their shared ability to quote Lord Byron—(whose reputation for naughty love was pretty great, although Shelley might be more fitting since he killed more of his own children)
  • accidentally gets engaged to a child molester
  • navigates out of jail with the help of a pregnant woman and a molested child

The moral ambiguity results from the grandson of the town’s founder, the most popular guy in town, being a child molester; and the town’s other leading citizen, its favorite police officer, basically screwing every young woman that shows up in town before getting them jobs at his favorite brothel. And yet, he still approaches justice with a fair hand, which is what saves the heroine’s life. As she leaves the jail, she is surrounded by hundreds of the town’s mothers—supposedly to celebrate her saving the town’s children. They look like a lynch mob. We’d ultimately conclude that there’s some loss of innocence in America.

Where did noir come from? A combination of the crime literature popularized during the Depression—potentially before, as Richard Wright discusses his obsession with it in his boyhood (Black Boy)—as well as the visual techniques of German / Weimar Republic theater and cinema. It’s best known, though, as a 1940s and 50s American phenomenon, whether B-films or Humphrey Bogarts.

For this reason, I think the origins are perhaps most likely the response of German artists to the experience of WWI. French impressionist cinema bears many of the same hallmarks—subjectivity, hard lighting, disjointed narratives, a psychological focus. And whether it’s a nationalist backlash to Hollywood or picking up where the avant-garde left off, the result is a collective European reset on a post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, a world in which the horrors of the other, of technologically backwards villages in one’s own nation, of vampires and phantom carriages, of one’s unresolved childhood sexual urges are no longer what strikes fear in the hearts of the masses, the bourgeoisie, or even the intelligentsia. Now that everyone’s been to the same trenches, learned to fight under common banners, the same nightmares strike all survivors—yet, a common film language is inadequate to speak to this new, common reality.

The result, rather, is a common film language that rejoices in an off-kilter visual and narrative representation of what previously made sense. Why did it make sense previously? Because world history was a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order—for instance, turning India into a modern nation, Africa divided up into modern nations, the Middle East into modern nations—chaos to order, a notion that may have died in art, but certainly not in politics.

The old language was of love, folk tales, comedy—the new language is one of complexity, and mostly, one of darkness. Every viewer sees a different image on the screen in the distorted lenses, in the shadows, in the disorienting camera angles, and further, every viewer understands a different story, and at different rates. For once, it was possible to leave the theatre without a clue as to what’s transpired on-screen!

This was the generation that was forced out of an increasingly elegant universe into one in which morality held no bearing, where every man had spent time with prostitutes, murdered other innocent men, seen his closest friends tortured to death by that same science meant to help us live in health and happiness forever.

So, the generation who followed—they weren’t the first. What they inherited was a ready-made film language, as well as a world that everyone could agree was no longer particularly enlightened.

And that’s where I see American film noir: situationally post-modern, but not yet developed beyond a modernist language that doesn’t translate.


Romanticism, sexual orientation, and rich people

Tim BlanningBBC History

“Art is no longer viewed as being representational or as recreational but as essentially expressive–that’s at the heart of the romantic revolution. It changes the purpose of culture from serving some other cause or patron to being artist-centered, that is, expressing what the artist feels inside himself or herself, and once that lep has been made from a work-centered to an artist-centered aesthetic, then the way has been cleared for music, which is the most expressive of all the arts, the way is cleared for music to move to the top of the heap.”

“One of the red threads that runs through [Wagner’s The Ring] is a critique of power, that it is the lust for power…[that it] corrupts and that there is in this constant struggle…the demands of love which must be privileged. So in that sense the meaning of The Ring was diametrically opposed to the ethos of the German empire with its triumphalism and its materialism. [ . . . ] If Hitler had understood…what [Wagner] was exposing…he would have [realized that] what he was trying to do was fundamentally misguided. [ . . . Wagner] would have been appalled. [ . . . ] He believed that Bismarck was ‘a brutal barbarian.’ [ . . . ] He was so appalled by the German militarism after 1871 that he talked about emigrating to the United States of America.”

“Professor Feldblum Introduces Moral Values Project”

27 Nov 06 @ Georgetown.

One’s sexual orientation is morally neutral, but the positive communication engendered by sex concomitant with one’s orientation is necessary and unique, and some would consider positive communication a good. Encountering those who consider homosexuality an aberration, an evil, allows potential dialogue introducing the question, “is it thus regarded merely because of something in Leviticus?” And is purely religious evidence reason enough to enforce anti-gay law? Tolerance is not enough, although it is a necessary first step. I find Feldblum’s project hopeful and admirable, but I think back to those I’ve known who have one book on their shelf, and who believe dinosaurs and gays never existed, and that a nation built on Christian values can uphold a separation of Church and State, and I don’t think that a handful of wealthy intellectuals can do much to change the world…except via violence.

“The Bin Ladens”

Steve Coll 24 Apr 08 @ London School of Economics and Political Science.

I suppose it’s no wonder that Bill Clinton played saxophone and George Bush is the guy everyone wants to drink a beer with, that somehow the key to American power is to appear simple, normal, middle-class, and just seem to fall into the good fortune of great fortune, all during the time of MTV’s Real World, and the explosion of the internet. I went out with a girl who did a lot of scoffing, and she scoffed at me for having read Zinn’s People’s History, and made some comment about it being a pernicious load of misguiding shit, and only now do I begin to wonder if, honestly, Leopold and Loeb are of more timeless relevance than Sacco and Vanzetti–I think yes. And I have trouble understanding the connection between the shits I went to high school with, all five-hundred of them very handsome, captains of the football team, graduating with highest honors, and going on to Harvard, yet unable to lead a decent conversation. I always liked to assume our enemies to be a ragtag group of fundamentalists who just happened to luck out back on 9/11–no–can it be that they’re just like us? The nation’s poor misled by the nation’s billionaires? Is it true that the bin Ladens have a rags-to-riches story that rivals anything Horatio Alger wrote? A Kennedy family with high ethics? When I stop answering the phone because all my friends have decided it’d be better to defer their dreams until after they have their own law practices and can let others work for them, they tell me “you’re so naive–honestly, you can make your fortune, and then be an artist,”–if you still have a soul. But it occurred to me today–rich people don’t have to worry about dying–because they have health care! Do you remember when Kennedy died? Do you remember the fiery chariot that swept down from the clouds and took his golden figure back to the heavens?

art: Impressionism

ever since maya and i began working on our project i’ve been trying desperately to make sense of art. i have a very difficult time giving a proper opinion on works of art, because my sense of beauty is somewhat skewed. when it comes to music all i care about is whether or not the song is catchy–even classical music, if i cannot sing and dance along with the parts, i just don’t care for it. when i think of a scary encounter in a dark alley, i think of ella fitzgerald gliding towards me with violent scatting. when it comes to literature i cannot tell the good from the bad, especially contemporary poetry, which seems to me the ultimate foray back to innocence, and most writers i’ve met seem to work very hard to mask complete ineptitude and habitual good luck. (not that i know a good poem when i see one.) no, in all things, i want a throbbing passion to be amplified, anais nin, astor piazzolla, the interactions between nick and nora charles, truffaut’s jules et jim, the shape of your lips and heat and taste of your mouth, tu fu, françoise sagan, tagore, girls dressing up and dancing for each other, jacques brel, babe: pig in the city, the color of your eyes when you’re being true…if i’m not laughing and crying with joy and anguish, if i’m not breathless and dying to stay awake, then i just don’t care. i just don’t.

it’s how i choose my friends.

when it came to art, the only artists who really affected me were durer and rodin. there’s something of flaming self-confidence in each of them, you can see it in the way durer painted himself, so handsome and dandy, and in the way rodin sculpted balzac, so great but so monstrous. yes, self-confidence is sexy: last year i found myself falling in love with a girl merely because of her posture, i just Had to know her. recently i attended a play and could not, could not for life of me pay attention because of the way the stage-hand carried himself, the ecstatic arch in his back, the light and sureness of his stride, it contained infinitely more humanity than any of those characters on stage. confidence.

and finally i’m standing in the boston mfa, looking at works of impressionism and just not understanding. why were they condemned or disliked or mocked in their time? why should i be moved? why should i care? and then it struck me: i do care. i care because their subjects have no outlines, i care because they focus on light, i care because they emphasize substance over form. this is serious.

joseph and i got in many fights, generally because i had a difficult time being part of his way of life, which was based on two opposing theories. the first theory was “no expectations,” a result of the turbulence inherent to a poetic lifestyle. the second theory was “be prepared,” which he never stated in so many words, but implied it, mostly because he was an eagle scout. he was always torn between ideals and reality, and because i am nowhere in between, in my absent-mindedness, in my naivety, in my perpetual childhood, we never really got along, though we were usually together. usually sighing over girls who had slighted us. he wrote a story about me, and i kill myself in the end; he made it into my novel, and i sent a plague his way, but i didn’t kill him. we’re so sentimental–how does that concern confidence, applying idealized pasts to a trivial future?

i’ve learned these past weeks that many concepts and terms are false, implying a singular definition, when really there is a whole spectrum represented in each. it’s why i can’t get married. every day things are becoming less absolute to me. there is a gypsy word that means both “tomorrow,” and “yesterday.” “living in the moment” is not one thing–it is many ways of being, and it shouldn’t imply that one has no responsibilities. druids were fierce warriors because they believed that at the instant of one’s death one was reborn as something else. life was eternal, it was valued differently. the ancient greeks and vikings had no measure of time, measures of time were symbolic, these people built with wood. was this a measure of confidence, as opposed to the egyptians, as opposed to those who built new york? how does one’s confidence affect one’s perception of time, and by extension, one’s perception of responsibility? confidence can remove us from the present to the future, but too much confidence for too long, and we forget that there’s a difference between now and later. you’ve noticed the life-cycle of empires?

the idea of “no expectations” sounds delightful. without expectations there is no disappointment: this is the key to everlasting romantic love. it ties directly in with “living in the moment”–which i’ve been taught when i was ushered through the experience of taking ten minutes to eat a grape. nothing has ever tasted so sweet as that grape, never have my senses been so consciously consumed, elevated. tantric. i felt naked–and we held our eyes closed–if i dared try eating like that, breathing like that, with my eyes open, you would see my soul, you would never question love again. but living in the moment also means bowing to one’s present desires, means hurting the people who love you, means following divine instructions that make no sense until later, tumbling isolated into the desert to argue with fire. it means a life of impetuous solitude, means human contact is flickering and sensual, intellectual only on the remotest level–and if you’re fortunate enough to have a short life, then this is ideal. rimbaud continually comes to mind, who lived a poet’s life briefly, and then fled into the very opposite. keats comes to mind, who lived a poet’s life internally, but whose girlfriend wouldn’t sleep with him. jim morrison comes to mind, who grew very fat and repulsive and reminds us that death is lumbering and hideous. how does one possibly live in the moment and die contentedly–i don’t mean peacefully, because i also mean violently, i mean an explosion and the sweetest of kisses.

and that’s what i see when i look at monet and his cronies: everything they paint is a reflection of light, which doesn’t mean all life is superficial. like in shelley’s “mont blanc,” we’re dependent on our senses to reach the essence of things, so yes, light is quite enough, metaphor and personification redundancies. and the movement of light, the minimally three-fold image of a reflection on a lake, a life of colors, running and melding, and yet a perfect picture of what our eyes know to be true, there, that is life in the moment–so dangerous–yet, to me, somehow preferable to stability. a beautiful life–a storyteller’s dream–an explosion.

23 aug 07

Show: Circus Folk Unite!: Zoomorphia (2008)

Hampshire College, 5 April 08.

We were hanging our bodies off the side of a railroad bridge, the gorge swaying beneath us, we had taken a long walk, and I came to realize during these days all the things I needed in life, and when I returned to school I went straight to the dance department and told the head of it that I wanted to change my course of study from English to dance, because I want to sing and dance, and that’s all I want to do, and I want to do it forever, because nothing makes me feel more pleasure. Perhaps there’s one other thing: and that’s song and dance with someone else, improvised, that, as if in a musical, begins without warning and ends, breathless gasps. It reaches a point at which I know the taste and scent of a person just by his or her words, I ask you, how did this, a most beautiful relationship, begin? Wasn’t it by a cigarette, as we shivered in the moonlight, cursing and praising Henry James? But it isn’t just words I need, though I need them, it’s your whole life that I need, and it needs to be as fascinating, if not more so, as mine. And one more thing–you need to know how to touch me, which means you need to know how to read me, it means you must be conversant a language you’ve never spoken, and it means I’ll be reading you very carefully and playing the same games I do in language–and this is why the only mistakes I make, I know they’re mistakes before I begin. The human body is meant to move, the voice is meant to sing, one can tell another’s profession merely by the inflection of his speaking voice, and I can hear your future in the way your “hello!” jumps up major seventh and back down, and why I worry when you say it with a minor third. I have mentioned this before, but through the years I’ve heard various ideas that, when grouped together, indicate that when prose is insufficient, one creates poetry, and when poetry is insufficient, one sings, and when song is insufficient, one dances. And that is why dance must necessarily comprise language, why a jazz soloist must know the words, why a poet must understand grammar…

It was only recently that I heard the term “circus arts”–and soon found myself listening to Fellini soundtracks by Rota, recognized how enthralled I am by movement alone, and how one can sweep across the gradients to reach movement that will render pedestrian that which is common (hahahahahahaaha), I mean there is movement that imitates life in such a way that life outside the dance becomes more precious, because somehow we are capable of this ourselves, somehow we are part of this greater world, are being imitated, if only we could find a way to reach back into our own natural movements. How did we dance before we were taught to stand still? How did we sing before we learned to keep silent? How did we express ourselves before they pinioned our faces?

Not all, but some, was graceful in such a way that inspired breathlessness, there were colors, there were smiles, and sometimes a majesty, expounding through punctuation, the fluidity of the trees who make the wind, wavelets, flickering tails, eyelashes, tongues, movement that was something like the slow pounce into a cherry, rolling the stone between your teeth, the stem between your fingers…and sometimes there was movement like an inebriated gravity, lumbering and erratic, prosaic, the streets and the cities–and it becomes ever so clear to me, that while it’s easy to imitate life while in the forest, the real trick is to imitate life while amongst Others.