Tuesday, June 27, 2006

a trustworthy vessel

Logic! It's the only automobile that, if driven properly, always works. It will get you from A to B.

But not if no one gets in.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

country roads

Country Roads is one song you've heard a thousand times but might not have thought much about. It's one of John Denver's most popular; everyone between thirty-five and sixty-five can hum it.

Which is what I'd like you to do, because there are some interesting things about it. I've been thinking about this ever since I got going on a Sacred Harp kick a few days ago. (At Friday's gig, after I'd been warming up, I said to Greg, "Hey! Guess what I've been doing?" He said, "Listening to a lot of Aaron Copland?" Actually, I'd been listening to what Copland listened to. Great ears, Greg.)

One of my strongest memories of the song is playing it over and over on our old furniture-stereo, so I could memorize the lyrics. Another is finding out that "misty taste of moonshine" referred not to silvery light but to backyard hooch. I'd thought that line was so poetic. I also remember thinking how odd the lyrical inversion at the end is: "take me home, country roads" becomes "take me home down country roads." That provides a nice little tang in the song's coda, but it dilutes the central image. I figured early on that I also would have changed the lyric "Life is old there, older than the trees; Younger than the mountains, blowin' like a breeze" to the more coherent "Life is old there, older than the trees; Older than the mountains, younger than the breeze."

John Denver did just fine without my ten-year-old suggestions, though. American culture at that time — the mid-nineteen-seventies — was going through a fascination with the South. Not the Old South of Gone With The Wind but the South of the present. "Hee Haw" was ascendant; "The Dukes of Hazzard" was in its original cast; we even managed to elect a gentleman farmer from Georgia to the White House. And on my AM radio station, right next to the Eagles and Elton John, I listened to the Bellamy Brothers' Let Your Love Flow, Kenny Rogers' The Gambler, and the Charlie Daniels Band's Devil Went Down to Georgia.

Denver's song, though, struck a note with me that the others didn't. Rogers' ballads brought the word "ballad" back to its original meaning; Let Your Love Flow was a strummy, head-bouncy, easygoing song; Devil stood on its own as a classic American artwork (as well as a wry commentary on the current state of country music, with the down-home traditionalist kicking the Nashville rocker's butt). But Country Roads reaches right to the deepest part of us, the part that longs for home, the exile for whom paradise is paradise lost.

It's been fun for me to introduce Catherine to the intricate world of music. She's a fine musician herself, but never got much into music theory, so there's much that's new to her, and I enjoy finding ways to communicate it all. After a scene in a recent movie whose score turned to the Lydian mode, I gave her a short tour of it, after which she said, "You never cease to surprise me with new stuff."

I also introduced her to the pentatonic scale. You might not be aware of the pentatonic scale or its meaning. If you hit all the black keys on a piano starting from F-sharp, you'll be playing a pentatonic scale. It has, as you may have guessed, five notes.

Most of the music that we think of as traditional American music is done with the pentatonic scale. Brethren, We Have Met to Worship can be played on only black keys. So can Amazing Grace. (Later songs that aren't real folk songs, like Stephen Foster's Oh Susannah, can be spotted by their telltale fourth-degree note. You have to hit a white key.) Chinese folk tunes are also pentatonic. Once in college I played a country tune for a Chinese foreign exchange student, and his eyes brightened with recognition, not of the individual tune, but of its sound. He was thunderstruck that there was this much musical common ground between his country and mine.

I say all this because Denver very skillfully uses the way these sounds work on our hearts. Every verse of "Country Roads" is entirely pentatonic. So is the chorus. The song could almost have been written back in the seventeen-hundreds. I say almost, because there's the bridge. The bridge is the clencher. The first verse is all principle and fact; the second verse introduces the "I" — all my memories, a teardrop in my eye — but the bridge is when it gets really personal. The speaker says "I hear her voice," and on the word "voice" descends to the seventh degree of the scale, piercing the song's pentatonic purity. When the radio that "reminds me of my home far away" is mentioned, the word "radio" falls on that other taboo note, the fourth. As long as the song centers on "the place I belong," the great homeland, it remains in the mode of the great American folk sound. The only time we hear the modern scale, it's connected to the anguish of exile.

There's gold in them thar songwriters.

Monday, June 12, 2006

valuable pop art

Catherine and I were watching an episode of "Lost," the one where the pregnant woman has been attacked (or dreams she has) by a vicious person who, by dint of tricky camerawork, isn't shown.

I turned to Catherine and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if the attacker turned out to be.... Nina?"

Catherine and I have been availing ourselves of several triumphs of popular art recently. "Lost" isn't one, I'm afraid: it's garden-variety excellent television. But "24" is another thing altogether. Every detail of it is well done. Every camera angle and lighting set-up, every sideways glance, every aspect of it shows that it's been painstakingly put together.

"24" follows the Billy Wilder First Rule of Narrative: Grab 'em by the throat, and never let 'em go. But what makes it the first great work of the century is that it goes beyond that. It would be easy to dismiss it as a superbly crafted wham-bang cliffhanger, but underneath the rhythms of tension and near-resolution that we've by now become accustomed to (and that borrow heavily from Scheherezade's storytelling technique in The Tale of a Thousand Nights and a Night) is a series of meditations and explorations on the deepest things in life.

What, in the modern world, is a career? What does it demand? What is a family, and what does it demand? What does loyalty consist of, and is it even a virtue at all? In Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, the central tension is between power and love. The "evil" dwarf Alberich must forswear love in order to forge the Ring of Power, and the "noble" god Wotan must barter Freia, the goddess of love, in order to build his fortress Valhalla. Wagner's point was to show how seductive power is, and how it almost always triumphs over love in the short run. But the innovation in "24" is to pit love against not destructive, world-dominating power — the contest that takes a business executive further and further away from his wife and children — but against the power to prevent evil. What if you had to sell Freia to stop the terrorists? What if you had to forswear love in order to forge a ring that would protect the millions of innocent Nibelungs against Alberich's scheme? Would it be worth it?

The series presents these questions to all of its main characters, and not even the Bad Accent Evildoer of the Season can distract us from contemplating them. It's not enough for me to look at Catherine and say, "I'm so glad that I don't have to make that kind of decision." Someone does have to make it in order to give me a measure of temporal safety.

There are some miscalculations in the show: the music, with its constant computer-french-horn blare, tries too hard to pump up the cliffhanging element. And the main theme never fails — never, ever, ever fails — to remind me of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita." It's a great song, but just at the moment when I should be wondering how on earth, or if on earth, Jack will save his daughter, I find myself singing, I fell in love with San Pedrooooo... Can't be what the producers had in mind. And besides the aforementioned Bad Accent Evildoer of the Season (Dennis Hopper deserves to have every award he's ever won taken out back and shot), there's Dennis Haysbert's facial ticks, not to mention the series's fondness for prominent breast display, which somewhat compromises the down-to-the-molecule authenticity of these depictions of bureaucrats, computer geeks, and soldiers.

But what am I carping for? It's a brilliant show. It's just one more item in television's canon that outdoes anything Hollywood is capable of, and does it every week. And by the way I must point out that, although I'm far from prudish about nudity or profanity, television's best shows — "24," "ER," "Law & Order," "The Practice" — stand as a living reproof to the old Hollywood line. Nudity and profanity are almost never essential to the plot or to an authentic depiction of these characters.

For my birthday, my parents gave Catherine and me tickets to see "The Lion King," whose regional tour stopped off here a few weeks ago. We've all heard about it for years, and for once Disney has come up with something that actually surpasses the hype. We have Julie Taymor to thank for that, but we also have the Disney suits, who after all could have insisted on a production that was safe and familiar, and that asked nothing of its audience.

Instead, we have a melding of pop culture (fizzy Disneyishness, Elton John, lovable sidekicks) with folk culture (traditional African costumes and dance styles) with high culture (those dance interludes that make you think you could be at an Alvin Ailey company recital, the brilliant co-opting of puppetry and costume for the animal characterizations).

Catherine and I had just been in Vienna, where we saw "Marriage of Figaro," Mozart's comic opera that turns into a beautiful meditation on human frailty and forgiveness. Catherine said that was the best stage production she'd ever seen. It was a Vienna State Opera production, with eye-popping interiors, a spine-chilling garden scene, terrific actor/singers who actually played their roles and seemed well-cast for them. But after "Lion King," she had second thoughts. Certainly, it's the best Broadway production I've ever seen. Best stage production in other categories still belongs to Otto Schenck's shattering realization of Wagner's Ring for the Met, with honorable mention to Austin Lyric Opera's stark "Andrea Chenier" a few years back, and, a few years before that, their stunning and delightful "Magic Flute," with costumes and set designs by Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are."

Interestingly, the event of the season for stage-lovers was a production of "Magic Flute" as well, for the Met, with costumes and set designs by ... Julie Taymor. It was, by all accounts, as great as "Lion King." We've got to see that production sometime. Meanwhile, we're still feasting on this wonderful show: the abundance of invention in every corner of every scene, the merciful lack of those puny Broadway voices, the good comic timing and spot-on skills of the actors, the intricate and beautiful ballets, hip-hop dances, and Motown send-ups, the at times overwhelming evocation of the great seasons of human and natural life.

Monday, June 5, 2006

on my mind

Occasionally, I'll find that I've been repeating something to myself for some time without realizing it. One time, when I was reading, I discovered that the idle tapping my right hand had been doing on the side of the chair was actually the opening and central rhythmic figure of the song "YYZ," which is also simply the letters Y-Y-Z in Morse code, with dits being one beat and dots being two, making a catchy 5/4 rhythm.

On the day of my master's exam, I awoke suddenly and said to myself: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin." I said it over and over, feverishly, under my breath ("These fragments I have shored against my ruin"), as I showered and dressed and ate breakfast. Only then did I see the meaning of what my brain was telling itself, and why on that day of all days. The line is the climax of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." It refers, I believe, to the fragments of the great human thoughts that its speaker has piled up in a personal war against chaos: the great ideas, as never-so-well-expressed by the great thinkers and expressers of the world, are indeed one way of civilizing ourselves against our society's unexamined coziness with the very worst that is thought and said.

So. This morning, after a night of good cigars and better steak with the boys, I awoke with Browning on my mind:

Then, welcome each rebuff That turns Earth's smoothness rough, Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand, but go! Be our joys three parts pain! Strive, and hold cheap the strain; Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe! For thence — a paradox Which comforts while it mocks — Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:

What I aspired to be, And was not, comforts me.