His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the category “Music”

Mark the music

From an enquiry in the OED on the word “savage” I was led to a line from The Merchant of Venice, which in turn led me to the broader context in Act V of the play. Here is a delightful part of Act V, sc. i about the effects of music.

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The image above is from this edition, which exhibits such fine typography that I thought it worth giving as such, rather than retyping it; the same text can be found in the original-spelling edition from Oxford, p. 506, and here it is in modernized orthography (from here):


I am never merry when I hear sweet music.


The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn’d to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music: therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

I don’t know that this is one of the better known parts of the play, but it deserves to be.


Orpheus mosaic from Edessa (dated 194 CE)

Driving with a few CDs

I’m just off of a 640-mile driving trip today. I’d been a few states away with family and I drove back home by myself. I listened to a little bit of music on the radio, but mostly CDs; I had no way to play the music on my phone, but fortunately I had a few physical albums with me. Here they are, in the order I listened to them:

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to this one all the way through. Excellent from the unique beginning to the ever-appreciable “Call of Ktulu.”

A lot of fun (“Is it rolling, Bob?”), as one might guess even from the album cover; very much worth listening to beside this one is the Dylan-Cash Sessions, from the same time period, and even though it’s not really a consistent album, the next one, Self Portrait almost always gets me singing.

This is not my most recent Dylan purchase (Time out of Mind and Tempest), but it wasn’t too long ago that I bought it. One of my favorite lines so far is from “Where Are You Tonight (Journey through Dark Heat)”:

I fought with my twin,
That enemy within,
Till both of us fell by the way.

I actually like most of the alternate versions (on disc 2 especially) more than the original releases. (Who can fail to find remarkable a phrase like “the boiled guts of birds”?)

These (and my thoughts) were all good company as I drove, but I did miss Tom Waits’ “Diamonds on my Windshield,” especially as I went through Wisconsin:

Wisconsin hiker with a cue-ball head
Wishing he was home in a Wiscosin bed
Fifteen feet of snow in the East
Colder then a well-digger’s ass
Colder then a well-digger’s ass

We’re not quite to snow-time yet here in the north, but we’re close.

P.S. As I write this, I’ve got the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Spotify. No sense in being musically stagnant, is there? (I’ve not seen the new film yet, but I’ve read the books and seen the Swedish films.)

On missing

One way to review the course of your life is by considering the relationships (think of the Beatles’ “In My Life”) — familial, professional, romantic, &c. — that grow and then perhaps die away (only a very small few escape the latter fate, I think). Naturally, not every person with whom we have relationships will ever be missed — some we’re quite happy to be rid of! — and not every time we miss someone occurs thanks to the dying away of a relationship: this latter case may arise merely due to a physical absence of proximity — even when we can still communicate, but sometimes not even that is possible — that has come about due to a confluence of events putting one person in one place and circumstance, one person in another. And there are, too, times when relationships are thought to be dead or moribund, but there is in either party or both of them a palpable sense of loss, be it a loss of habit, of mere company, of mutual sharing and service, of present and future memory, of sex, or of something else still. Look up the word “miss” in your dictionary and you’ll be reminded of its various meanings, but the one in mind here is “to feel — not merely to notice — the absence of someone.” By nature, that someone is a loved or desired someone, else you would not miss them in the first place!

In English we say, “X misses Y,” where the agent X feels the absence of Y and that relationship is construed with X as subject and Y the object in the predicate (type I), but in some other languages, a different construction is the used, with the missed person (or thing) as grammatical subject and the person experiencing the emotional sensation of that person’s absence in the slot of (in)direct object, that is, the person affected by the agent’s being missing (type II). In terms, then, of the English example above, this comes out as “Y is missing to (the detriment of) X.” Languages with this construction include, but are certainly not limited to, French “elle me manque.” Some languages actually have both constructions, as, for example, Latin with the verb carere (type II) over against desiderare and requirere (both type I), and German “ich vermisse dich” (type I) or “du fehlst mir” (type II). (Ancient) Greek constructions with ποθεῖν would be type I, but with the adjective ποθεινός type II, and Arabic اوحشتِني (awḥaštinī) type II, but (from the same root) استوحشتُ لكِ (istawḥaštu laki) type I.

I’ve already hinted at a Beatles song above, but of course there’s a lot more music of various genres and time periods that hangs on the sharp sensation of another’s absence, whether whole songs, like Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” (check out the version from the Dylan/Cash sessions!), or just a line or two, as from “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing\\Many many men can’t see the open road.” From Dylan, among those that immediately come to mind are “Girl from the North Country,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and, of course, “Tangled Up in Blue” (“But all the while I was alone\\The past was close behind,\\I seen a lot of women\\But she never escaped my mind,\\and I just grew\\Tangled up in blue…. So now I’m goin’ back again,\\I got to get to her somehow.”). Aside from memories themselves making someone missed, there are even things, things looking backward or things looking forward, that may stoke the reminding flames of another’s existence to us, as is reflected in some lines from “Boots of Spanish Leather”: “I might be gone a long ol’ time\\And it’s only that I’m askin’\\Is there something I can send you to remember me by\\To make your time more easy passin’?” Of course, for the singer, the prospect of those boots and the past is all he’s left with by the end of the song.

Allow me a little excursus: while neither directly nor solely tied to the theme of missing, it does have some bearing on it. Do the people for whom songwriters or poets have written love songs, songs of forlornness, or songs of departure come to mind, more to self-referenced existence, during the performance of those songs and poems (not to mention the initial writing), even years later when that loved one is absent, departed (relationally), or dead? It’s hard to imagine that they do not, but for them as well as for those who hear songs or read their poems, the characters in some lyric narrative may be played by different actors at different times; that is, when someone sings or hears some line like “As long as I love you, I’m not free” (the line is from “Abandoned Love”), the “I” may be the same, but the “you” may have some altogether other referent! When we take part in music, poetry, or other literature, we interpret it and even endow it with meaning according to our present circumstances, the current concoction of our memories and experiences, and those circumstances are, of course, also part of a broader net of human memory and experience (such as the song we’re hearing or the text we’re reading). This is something Gadamer (1900-2002 — apparently his philosophy is good for longevity!) points to in Truth and Method (1960):

The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion. (ET, p. 304).

For the Teutonophiles out there, here’s the original:

Es macht die geschichtliche Bewegtheit des menschlichen Daseins aus, daß es keine schlechthinnige Standortgebundenheit besitzt und daher auch niemals einen warhaft geschlossenen Horizont. Der Horizont ist vielmehr etwas, in das wir hineinwandern und das mit uns mitwandert. Dem Beweglichen verschieben sich die Horizonte. So ist auch der Vergangenheitshorizont, aus dem alles menschliche Leben lebt und der in der Weise der Überlieferung da ist, immer schon in Bewegung. (4t ed., p. 288)

So, while the original person for whom or about whom a song, poem, &c. was written will probably never be out of the author’s memory nor will the person first closely associated with some text or song in the memory of a hearer or reader whenever one comes to any such memory-inducer, that doesn’t mean that their “you,” “she,” or “he” will always reflect the same other person.

While thinking on this theme, in my mind I happened upon the line from the book of Jeremiah, “Rachel, weeping for her children, refused to be comforted, because they are not” (Rāḥēl mǝḇakkā ʾel-bānéhā mēʾănā lēhinnāḥēm ʿal-bānéhā kī ʾēnénnū, Jeremiah 31:15), which was also used to notable effect in an episode of Moby Dick‘s plot. Existentially speaking (and speaking at least partly from a notably selfish viewpoint, which is in any case the commonest way most of us have a viewpoint about anything, whether or not we consider ourselves overly selfish!), those people we miss “are not,” that is, from our own perspective we sometimes cannot consider them other than not here, not around. We are obviously not denying their existence in the bald essential sense, although philosophically even that might be considered: how far do I exist to someone who is not thinking of me, in whose presence I am not, but if I am in someone’s presence actively (not necessarily in conversation) or even if I am being missed by that person and not in their physical or even conversational (including phone, email, etc.) presence, to them am I not in some degree more existent from the perspective of their own view?

These are just some admittedly scattered musings. Feel free to sharpen, polish, or expand them with your own reflections in the comments.

A trilingual epigram on music

The few lines I share here are from my own pen — and yes, I did write them before typing them! — and partly an exercise in composition. I first put them to paper a couple of weeks ago in Latin unversified, and thus they remain in that language (but I’m hoping to make them elegiac), then I English’d them, and finally I put them into Syriac in the dodecasyllabic meter of Jacob of Serug (451-521). I find the less strict system of Syriac meter easier to write verse in than that of either Greek or Latin, but in all three of these specific cases, once the ideas are there, it’s a question of one’s own knowledge of the language’s flexibility, that is, how to say the same or similar things in different ways, ways made up of differing numbers of syllables, different orders of long and short syllables, &c.
Here, then, are the quatrains in the order in which they were composed. The sentiment of all three is surely the same, though the exact wording of each line is a little different for each language.

Musica salus est dolentibus,
remedium et cura tristibus;
amplectitur animum maestum,
barathro decarpit pectus claudum.


Music to the hurting is a balm indeed,
A remedy and cure for saddened hearts;
She embraces tight the woeful soul,
And from the pit delivers the halting breast.


Musiqārutā (h)y ḥulmānā la-d-keryat l-hon,
sumsāmā w-yaṣṣiputā l-ʿayyiqay lebbā;
mṭappyā gēr l-ḥadyhon kmirā d-hānon da-šḥiqin,
men dēn hawtā mšawzbā l-napšā hāy d-ḥaššišin.

Addendum: After writing the few lines above, I just happened to read the beginning of an anonymous Hebrew poem that touches on the same theme from another angle (see T. Carmi, Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 364; translation slightly adapted):

אמרו לראש פתן: הבה צרי
ולשון דוה לבב: שיר דברי
You might as well say to the poisonous asp: “Give me balm,”
As to say to one sick at heart, “Let out a song!”

The sad may not be so willing themselves to sing, but they can at least drink up the music made by someone else, dirges most especially.
As always, comments are welcome! Thanks for reading!

On epigrams

I love gargantuan books, especially after I’ve finished reading them. It’s a unique feeling to look up on the bookshelf and see several inches of the wood occupied by a single title, whether in one or more volumes, and to remember from that sight, taking up so much of one’s vision with its many-paged mass, the myriad characters, spans of years involved, lands visited and perhaps fled, verbose and colorful description of at first seemingly irrelevant matter, &c. But there’s also a pleasure in reading-material that doesn’t take so many months (or years) to first taste — although it may take that long to really digest. I mean here short stories, plays, shorter novels, and poetry, of course, but more specifically I have in mind here the literary form of the epigram.

Epigrams take various forms in various languages, and are sometimes poetic (for example, in Greek and Latin), sometimes not. They are a convenient way for authors to give meaningful statements without full essays or treatises, although, of course, subsequent readers may be thereby inspired (or irritated!) to pen their own interpretation of the theme, in which case the little epigram will have engendered a larger progeny. While they are not the exclusive members of the club, epigrams are the quintessentially quotable bits of an author, being ready-made for such separate employment divorced from their original context (which may be more or less disjointed to begin with).

The word epigram itself is Greek — the word first meant “inscription” — and we have a huge collection of epigrams in that language in the later collection known as the Greek Anthology. (That is not to say that Greek is the earliest language in which epigrams were uttered.) These are in meter and are often somewhat longer than that which we we typically consider to be epigrams nowadays. Latin, too, has verse epigrams, notably those of Catullus and Martial, both of whom are as much a delight to read today as they always have been and always will be by appreciators of language and observers of society.

The epigram in later European literary history is not without some shining examples. I have lately been especially enjoying Nietzsche’s in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“Sprüche und Zwischenspiele,” the fourth part = §§63-185), Wilde’s (see here for the privately printed Oscariana), and Ambrose Bierce’s printed at the end of the eighth volume of his Collected Works.

It’s worth noting, too, that the lyrics of some modern music — say, from the mid-1960s — might well be classified as at least partly epigrammatic. Examples that leap to the forefront of my mind now are “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (if you’ve not yet heard the forceful and charging version from Before the Flood, do yourself a favor and get it in addition to the one on Bringing It All Back Home) and (maybe?) “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Epigrams can sound very ex cathedra, and I suppose they are; not really more so than any opinionated piece of writing, that is writing that expresses some view on a subject, but epigrams are more poignantly punchy in that they’re so brief compared to a twenty- or thirty-page treatise and generally very clear in meaning (but Nietzsche’s not always so). Anybody who has a problem with the assumed authority of this or that epigrammarian is free, of course, to write his or her own epigrams in response!

Finally, epigrams composed in languages other than one’s own are veritably useful when learning the language(s) in question: they’re fodder for both cultural and linguistic enquiry, and a good exercise for the memory, not to mention suitable for addition to one’s arsenal of conversation for cocktail parties and other settings.

Any favorite epigrams or collections thereof? Please say so in the comments!

Requiescat in pace Doc Watson

A fragment of an evening is hardly enough time to commemorate well the life — the musical part of it, at least (all most of us know) — of Doc Watson, who died today at age 89, but thankfully there’s no compulsion to do so in just one evening: we can continue to as long as we hear him hereafter. A towering figure by any estimation in both folk and bluegrass, he was known especially for his guitar-work, but I’ll be the first to affirm we’d be poorer had he only been an instrumentalist. From the early 1960s he can be seen in video from the Newport Folk Festival (which, of course, Dylan, rather younger, also took part in), where he also played with Appalachian dulcimer notable Jean Ritchie (the recording is available). Others will make other selections, but the two albums I would most recommend — thanks to nostalgia, I heartily confess — are The Essential Doc Watson and, with his son Merle (d. 1985), Down South. The shouts of approbation and jubilation you’ll hear in his live performance of “Black Mountain Rag” on the former will, assuming you’re not a heartless knave, find echoes in your own enjoyment. The latter album I distinctly recall listening to multitudinous times with my father, “Solid Gone” and “Give me Back my Fifteen Cents” being among my favorites every time (but back then we were listening to audio cassettes and so it wasn’t quite so easy to skip right to your favorite tune).

Jerome (and others) referred to the scholar known as Didymus the Blind with the name Didymus videns (Didymus the seeing), because, although he lacked physical sight, with his memory and genius he saw clearly how to use the mind and direct his soul more than many of those who do have sight as regularly considered. Doc Watson was blind, but if you listen to him handle his dear guitars and dole out his perfectly accompanying voice, you’ll find your own vision more open than it was before. Requiescat in pace Doc videns.


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