Thursday, September 29, 2011

the fragrance of apple

This weekend I got some new stuff for my computer, which occasioned going into the Apple Store a few times.

Almost everything in that place is perfectly calibrated. The decor combines blank modernity with fulsomeness. The gadgets are salivatingly available and fiddleable. The geniuses at the Genius Bar are so perfectly varied in gender and ethnicity they could be from the ads rather than real life. Perfectly varied in every way but one: they all hew to the same unwavering standard of hipness; each one is the cool nerd, the confident geek, the semi-popular friend who will be friendly to everyone.

I say almost everything there is perfectly calibrated. There's one aspect of the Apple Store that hits me like a heatwave every single time I enter it, and cannot possibly be intended. It's the smell. The fragrance of the store isn't a glamorous fragrance of luxury merchandise, or the clean non-fragrance fragrance of high-tech; nope, it's the unmistakeable smell of massed human flesh. Texans don't recognize the smell of the subway, but anyone who's spent time on one will immediately know it.

Why is this? Other places in the mall buzz with activity, but you don't get that sour meaty wave anywhere but this one place. Maybe it has to do with the ventilation system you need for a room full of computers and pads and pods? I just don't know. It's a mystery. Have you ever noticed it?

Monday, September 26, 2011


When I first saw reference to thaxting, I wondered what on earth it could be.

This was last week, when I looked at a piece of sheet music. Owen Duggan, the skilled and happening director of music at Christ Episcopal — and award-winning singer-songwriter of children's music — has a show choir at San Antonio College, not having much else to do with his spare time. He asked me to do an a cappella version of the school's alma mater.

At this point, you may be wondering when I'm going to tell you how to thaxt (assuming you'd want to). Well, I'll tell you, but first, the alma mater. Now, when you're doing a college alma mater, you often use a familiar melody. Baylor uses "In the Good Old Summertime." UT uses "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad." What catchy folk tune does SAC use? Why, it's "Jupiter," from Gustav Holst's The Planets.

As I looked it over, I thought, hey, this is pretty neat. It was transformed from a heavy symphonic jovian romp (as a bassist in the orchestra, I always shouted "Hoooooh, hoh, hoh, hoh, hohhhhhhhh!" when we played it. Holst being Holst, I wasn't heard) into a solemn hymn with some interesting turns, the kind of thing we associate with Elgar and Vaughan Williams and back numbers in the Episcopal hymnbook. One doesn't immediately jump to the thought that jazz choir is the perfect setting for it, but I trusted Owen's vision and got to work, and sure enough the whole thing turned out to be a really cool arrangement. Can't wait to hear them do it.

Now where were we. Ah yes. On the sheet music, the lyrics are credited to someone I assume was a professor. Standard-issue hail-to-thee stuff for a school song. But what does it say for the composer credit? "Adapted from Holst?" "A rejiggered tune by Holst?" Nope, it just says "Gustav Holst," and under that it says:
Thaxted from "The Planets: Jupiter"

Hm. These trendy academics: what is it exactly to thaxt something? Does it refer to slightly changing something to fit a different purpose? Or would that be covered by "adapt?"

Wouldn't you like to know. Actually, if I keep putting off the revelation, you'll just look it up yourself, in which case you'll find what I found. "Thaxted" is the name of a hymn tune. The melodies of hymns often have separate names that aren't the title of the hymn itself. "Amazing Grace" isn't "Amazing Grace;" it's "New Britain." That's because hymns and melodies are often shuffled around, and it's good for the melody to have a separate identity.

Holst indeed adapted his theme from The Planets himself to fit the lyrics to "I Vow to Thee, My Country," and called the hymn tune "Thaxted," after the English town where he lived. (If the place-name were spelled more like other English place-names, it might have been "Thackstead," and I wouldn't have been as thrown-off. But then I started thinking of other names like "Brixton." Hm. Same orthographic process, probably pretty early in the game.)

So. It turns out that "thaxt" isn't a verb. Or at least wasn't until this weekend. I've made it one.

thaxt |thakst| v to omit quotation marks in such a way as to create a new, perhaps unintelligible, meaning.
n an example of that misuse.
Ex. With No Way Out, Kevin Costner began a streak of good acting. Revenge is the end.

There you have it, folks. A new name for an old phenomenon that might not have had a name. Thaxting.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

sixties night

There are never enough Jazz Protagonists albums, don't ya think?

We looked through our hundreds of hours of recorded archives, found something we liked, and threw together a delicious album of music from the 1960s. Not jazz standards from the sixties, but pop tunes performed by Dionne Warwick, the Beatles, Herb Alpert, and more — all of it transformed into classic jazz in the Protagonists style.

Check out the album art.

Click on the picture above to see it full size

Monday, September 19, 2011

that kind of day

Too tired to cook? Let's order a pizza.

Barry: (tosses the phone 3 feet over to Catherine to call)

Catherine: I'm-too-tired-to-call-you-call.

Barry: But now the phone's all the way over there.

Catherine: I'd toss it back to you but I just can't make myself do it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pop, Rock, Country, Damnation

I was talking with a friend about a discussion he's having in a class, comparing "Bohemian Rhapsody" with "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." Some nice parallels and contrasts, yes?

For one thing, beyond the witty wordplay and drastic moral scheme, both use overdubbing to create an overwhelming sense of 'legion' in the spiritual plane: with Queen it's voices, and with the Charlie Daniels Band it's the Devil's multi-voiced stereo-riffic violin.

Both include pastiche of a different musical style — no doubt both groups relished showing off their skill in doing it, though the Charlie Daniels Band accomplishes a convincing funk groove whereas Queen goes more for the cartoon version of classical music (and neither is very authentic). Interestingly, both versions represent the music of the spiritual plane as a familiar but Not-Us style — kind of like how Disney always has the good guys speaking with "our" accent and the bad guys speaking with a foreign one. (The Arab Aladdin speaks with a middle American accent, while the Arab Jafar with a British one! — interesting, because in the 1001 Nights, of course, the whole tale takes place in China.)

Then there are the lyrical texts. Which one is more honest? Is either honest? In one, we have a truly guilt-ridden person who has just committed murder (we're led to believe he killed the man who loved and left him) and is about to commit suicide, imagining, after apostrophizing his ostensibly Catholic mother, a condemnation by comic-Dantean divine jury, helplessly being argued over ... but then winding up as Manfred, shaking his fist at the heavens and his fellow man as he takes his own life. In the other, a down-home boy with extraordinary gifts who is pictured as making a deal with the Devil and then outdoing him. It's presented as no more than a southern tall tale, but, looking at the implications seriously, is Johnny really better off than [let's say] Freddie?

Is either song taking the moral implications of this life seriously? I'd argue that both are, and both aren't, I guess. Interestingly, the cartoonish "Rhapsody" winds up with a bit more moral seriousness than the folkish "Devil," which, perhaps perilously, pictures the Devil being bested at his own game. We might, though, offer some different interpretations of "Devil": for instance, is Johnny actually a Christ figure, though a superficial one because there's no real sacrifice of self? Or, given the chorus, with its roster of invented comic-folk song references, are we saying that by sticking to what you know and being true to yourself you can indeed best the Devil ("resist him and he will flee")? On a more down-to-earth level it can certainly be read as a music-biz parable, given the state of things in the mid-70s. By representing the devil's music as an infernal form of disco, the song becomes a commentary on the politics of country music in Nashville at the time. Do you remain true to your
fiddlin' roots or do you sell out and do country-rock?

The interesting thing here is that neither country nor pop nor, really, rock 'n' roll could have produced either these songs in the fifties or even sixties. The question of "what is a song supposed to be about" keeps changing every couple of decades in pop music since the Civil War.

Is there anything a pop song shouldn't address, or can't address, simply because of the limitations of pop music? And is your answer to those questions affirmed or contradicted by the fact that both of these songs approach risky territory wearing the costume of forms that aren't quite so limited (high culture in one case and folk culture in the other)?