Having Been, Being Then

February 14, 2011

I’ve been listening recently to Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois (yeah late to the party I know). I particularly like the song “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!!” But I’m not here to talk about the music; once again, I want to think briefly about misheard lyrics.

In one repeated phrase, Sufjan talks about “having been, at last, forgot.” But my mind often substitutes for “having been” the similar phrase “being then.” The line would mean something very similar, given that substitution, but not exactly the same; there is a difference between having been forgot and and being then forgot. The former places the emphasis on the event of the forgetting; the latter on the state of being forgotten. I think both would be appropriate for a song about the end of the world and the Last Judgment, but I find it interesting that Sufjan chose the event rather than the state. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

September 4, 2010

I’ve recently gotten into the music of The Decemberists. Genre-wise, Last.Fm classifies them as “indie/indie rock/indie pop/alternative”; my listening to them is thus partially a result of my having picked up Andrew Bird over the last year or so. But in a lot of ways, I think, the Decemberists are closer to the rest of my music library (i.e. various flavors of metal) than they are to Bird. I’ll try to make the argument for why, though again, since I’m not a musician, I don’t feel qualified to talk about musical style; I’ll primarily be looking at lyrics in this post.

While Bird concerns himself with the inherent limitations of science, language, and reason generally, the Decemberists are interested in much the same things as, say, Kamelot; their songs are love songs, for the most part, generally failed loves, and often have a strong historical or literary bent to them. Kamelot’s best work is their two-album-long interpretation of Goethe’s Faust; the Decemberists’s three “The Crane Wife” songs are twenty minutes of music about a traditional Japanese story, and “The Island–Come And See The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” is from what I can tell about Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The Decemberists also bear resemblances to Dream Theater, another prog metal band. Both are strangely literary for musicians; they constantly allude to poems and poets, and try to capture the emotional state of characters from stories. Dream Theater quotes Frost and James Joyce in some of the songs off Awake; the Decemberists seem to reference Coleridge in “The Island (&c)”, with lines like “The rivers roll down to a soundless sea,” and the song “The Legionnaire’s Lament” always reminds me of Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues,” though perhaps only because of the word “legion.” Songs like “Yankee Bayonet” and “When the War Came” are historical, not literary, but show a story-teller’s eye for history, just as Dream Theater has songs about AIDS (“Learning to Live”) and 9/11 (“Sacrificed Songs”).

These may seem like facile points, that I’m pointing out similarities of the sort that exist between any two musicians. But I don’t think that’s it. The main point is that the Decemberists, unlike Andrew Bird, are predominantly story-based. They’re not trying to capture a mood that one arrives at upon contemplating the world (which is what Bird does most of the time, I think), but rather to show how emotions work as one acts in the world — primarily in the most emotional of activities, falling in and out of love.

Anyay, this all brings me to the song I started this post wanting to talk about, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect.” I’ve been listening to this constantly over the last week or so. Though it’s a great song, I’m not here really to talk about how it functions musically; mostly I want to point out the verse in which the title appears.

And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet
This structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go

I find fascinating how similar, and yet different this is to Andrew Bird’s stuff. It’s using so much of the same language, the same ideas. It’s more abstract than most Decemberist songs; the reference to architecture makes it necessarily meta-artistic, and we have to think of language as architecture, as a building, words used to build and to cage. The line “even though my work is unparalleled” is the kind of mathematical pun I think Bird would love. But while Bird would use these words to talk about the failings of science when it tries to understand the world, the Decemberists use them to show a failed romance; even when dealing in abstract ideas, they come back to concrete human interactions — to life, not thought. An interesting juxtaposition.

Andrew Bird and the Scientific Sublime

June 8, 2010

I haven’t said anything here about music for a while. With this post I intend to rectify that. My subject will be Andrew Bird, an indie-baroque-pop artist, whom I only started listening to in the last few months (probably since January), but who has quickly become one of my favorite musicians. I have three of his albums, “Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” “Armchair Apocrypha,” and “Noble Beast”; all three have many good songs on them, some of which I’ll mention over the course of this post.

Andrew Bird has several things going for him. To start with, I find his intricate musical style quite appealing; he plays guitar, violin (pizzicato and arco), and whistles, as well as other instruments, and layers them all together in a way that doesn’t overwhelm –  in fact, his music has a quite minimalistic feel to it, until you pay attention and realize how complex it really is. The whistling in particular makes it unlike most other music I’ve listened to. Andrew Bird songs often give me the feeling of being in a white room looking at a complex yet not chaotic contraption, a clock or perhaps a circuit.

A related strength is his use of his voice and the sound of his lyrics. He doesn’t have an amazingly strong voice, but he uses it to his advantage. It’s melodic yet matter-of-fact, occasionally plaintive, which fits with the precise minimalism of the instrumentals. Then there are the lyrics. The words of his songs always sound as if they mean something, merely by their sound, even if they don’t. For example, he has a song called “Fake Palindromes,” the first few lines of which are, “my dewy-eyed disney bride, what has tried / swapping your blood with formaldehyde?” No one else would try to rhyme with a scientific word like “formaldehyde.”

Which brings me to what I find really interesting about Bird; the subjects of his songs. Given his complex, layered, precise, even scientific, aural aesthetic, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he often takes as his subject science and mathematics. What he is most interested in are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the scientific way of looking at things. He wants to believe in beauty, to have free will, but the fact that we can quantify the universe threatens to make these things impossible. In the song “Masterfade,” he says to his lover that “when you look up at the sky / all you see are zeros / all you see are zeros and ones.” That way of looking at the world, he fears, make a true appreciation of the wonders of the world impossible. In “Imitosis,” he reports (a lot of Andrew Bird songs have the feeling of being reports, perhaps even scientific abstracts) that “What was mistaken for closeness / Was just a case of mitosis.” If we’re just organisms like any other, than whatever meaningful relationships we may have, whatever rights and duties to others we may think we have, are actually just our genetic code controlling us.

But Bird doesn’t go from here to a rejection of science; he loves science and math and logic. You can tell from listening to his songs, to his use of complex latinate words and bizarre conceits and language games. He rejects any attempt, religious or otherwise, to feel better by ignoring what science seems to be saying. In “The Privateers,” he asks of us, “Don’t sell me anything / Your one time offer, so uncalled for / You call it piece of mind.” In “Measuring Cups,” perhaps my favorite Andrew Bird song, he asks, “when you talk about the hand of glory / a tale that’s rather grim and gory / is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed? / when the tales of brothers Grimm and Gorey have been outlawed.”

So Bird doesn’t want us to look for meaning by rejecting science. What, then, does he turn to? In the end, I think, he never answers that question in full. If he could, he wouldn’t have to make songs about it. But I think he finds a partial answer in the very scientific aesthetic that resulted from his worrisome interest in science. His songs, after all, though often sounding plaintive and questioning, rarely sound despairing. Instead they revel in their own precision. Rather than seeking beauty outside of science, he finds it in the patterning, of numbers and of sound. This is what the best Andrew Bird songs show us; the precise use of language and sound can conjure images of what they describe that make us feel almost like we’re watching a nature documentary, like with with sea aenenome of “Anonanimal.”

But beauty, I think, might be the wrong word here. He finds aesthetic pleasure in patterns, and beauty is defined as proportion; but more precisely, beauty is found in things being proportionate relative to the viewer. Beauty requires something to be on a human scale. Bird doesn’t find the science beautiful for it’s relationship to humans (in fact, that’s what scares him about it); he finds pleasure in it for its own sake. That sounds to me more like the sublime. And indeed, I think there’s an aspect of reveling in the infinite going on here. Bird is probably one of the few songwriters who would completely understand what it means to say that the world itself is not infinite – it is very large, but bounded. When we draw general laws from it – which is what science does – we are inductively drawing the infinite out of the finite. Bird already intuits this, I think; in “Tenuousness,” he talks about the world, which is “tenuous at best,” coming “just shy of infinity.” The world itself is beyond our grasps and finite; strangely, what is infinite, what is in our minds, is less tenuous.

Ashes to Ashes

February 17, 2010

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For Catholics, it marks the beginning of a period of penance, ashes being a Biblical symbol of mourning and repentance.

Interestingly, when the priest places the ashes on your forehead, he intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What is the connection between dust and ashes? Dust is  a reference to earth, to our being made from clay with life breathed into us by God, while ashes are what is left over from a burnt-out fire. There’s interesting things going on here with the elements; earth, air, water, fire.

All of this is symbolic of human mortality, but also suggests that we also transcend our morality. I am reminded of a song by Dream Theater called “Wait for Sleep”. It’s about a girl lying in bed thinking about God and faith. Near the end of the song, the question is asked, “In with the ashes / Or up with the smoke from the fire?” I think this question can be taken different ways, but I interpret it as asking, is the fire of life destructive or purgative?

The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

January 27, 2010

Ferdinand de Saussure was a brilliant Swiss linguist from the early 20th century. The Magnetic Fields are a synth-pop/indie-pop/I-don’t-understand-pop-genres band who specialize in ironic and depressing songs sung, if it makes sense to say it, in a dead-pan manner. One of these has written a song about the other; I’ll let you guess which way it went.

Recently “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (youtube link) has become one of my favorite songs, both for its catchy tune and (primarily) for its extremely clever lyrics (line numbers added in brackets to facilitate discussion later):

I met Ferdinand de Saussure
On a night like this
On love he said “I’m not so sure
I even know what it is
No understanding, no closure [5]
It is a nemesis
You can’t use a bulldozer
To study orchids”

He said…
So we don’t know anything [10]
You don’t know anything
I don’t know anything
about love
But we are nothing
You are nothing [15]
I am nothing
Without love

I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure [20]
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying “it’s well and kosher
to say you don’t understand
but this is for Holland-Dozier-
Holland” [25]

[chorus 2x]

First of all, let’s look at some of the rhymes he chooses. For example, between lines 1 and 3. See what he did there – rhyme “Saussure” with “so sure”? They’re pronounced the same, but they’re different words, spelled differently. He does something similar in lines 18 and 20, between “composer” and “composure” – in the same location in the stanza as the first time. I doubt it’s coincidental, particularly since it’s a fitting thing to do in a song about Saussure, whose linguist theory said difference between phonemes is how we decipher meaning. It also seems related to Derrida’s “differance“.

Anyway, this stanza is about how Saussure doesn’t know what love is. Why? Because “You can’t use a bulldozer / To study orchids.” This is maybe my favorite two lines in the song. The implication seems to be that Saussure is a linguist who approaches language scientifically, and love is something unscientific. But I think something a bit more complicated might be going on here. It’s about having a structure, a framework, versus having content. (Incidentally, structure v. content may be makings its way to my Dictionary soon; it’s related to deduction/induction, though.)

See, the problem is “No understanding, no closure” – he can’t diagram love and finish the diagram, close it, because love is not found in the structure of the mind, it is in the content of the mind. The bulldozer/orchid metaphor isn’t just about destroying something beautiful with an ill-fitted tool, though it is that; it’s also about the building of a structure (bulldozers are used for construction, even if they do knock things down) being unable to explain something non-structural. This fits again with Saussure’s linguistic theory, which looks only at the structure of language, not the content.

After this the chorus sets up the opposition of the song: Saussure says “we don’t know anything … about love,” but the narrator insists “we are nothing … without love.” The repetition here (“we don’t… I don’t… you don’t…” and “we are… I am… you are…”) I find interesting; it brackets off the fact that this is “about love,” “without love”, making us consider the statement first generally, then about love specifically. Saussure wouldn’t just say that we don’t know anything about love; the same applies to beauty, truth, God, other people. In his structuralist system, we can’t say anything or know anything about these things, the things that really matter; we only know about how they interact with each other, nothing about their content.

But it is this claim about love, specifically, that the narrator objects to. Why? The second stanza addresses this: the narrator is “a great composer,” a song-writer. And it’s “all well and kosher / to say you don’t understand,” but Saussure must die – why? Because he says more than “I don’t understand.” He says “we can’t know anything.” He moves from saying his system can’t make sense of something to saying that the thing cannot be known. Does the narrator believe it can be known? Or only that we cannot be so quick to dismiss the possibility?

Now, that reference to “Holland-Dozier-Holland.” I had to look it up, but that’s the name of the song-writing and production team behind a lot of Mo-Town songs – songs with names like “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” etc. Songs that don’t consider love philosophically, but rather presume love is important and just sing about some particular love, in terms of love as an emotion. It is for these that the narrator shoots Ferdinand de Saussure. He shoots, apparently, because that approach, that assumption of love, cannot coexist with Saussure’s claims.

But is it because they are right and Saussure is wrong? Or because the narrator wants to preserve their innocence (really naivete) from the harsh truth Saussure revealed? I don’t know if the song answers that explicitly. In support of the second theory, the narrator says “we are nothing … without love”: so the narrator acted to stop us from becoming nothing, as would have happened if Saussure succeeded in destroying love. Also, the love of Holland-Dozier-Holland songs is hardly deep spiritual love – it’s little more than glorified lust – so it would seem odd for the narrator to consider that the truth of love that needs protecting. In this interpretation the song has a somewhat nihilistic bent.

But on the other hand, the narrator is a song-writer himself – and he writes about love. I find it hard to believe a man could do that if he believed love was not real, as he would have to, under the first interpretation. So either the song is even more nihilistic than we had thought, or the narrator still believes in love, and did not allow Saussure to claim that love cannot be known because he believes he can know love, through music, through art.

Then why did he not say what love is, in response to Saussure’s doubt? Because he does not know himself. In this interpretation, the singer is, albeit with respect to love rather than God, a kind of Christian nihilist, a la Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. He does not know what love is, but, taking a leap of faith, he believes that knowledge is possible, and that love itself is possible. But it cannot be understood through philosophy, through reason, through Saussure’s methods; rather, it can be known only through art.

Of course, the song-writer for the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt, is gay and was raised Buddhist, so any Christian undertones are likely unintentional. But the nihilistic slant is there, as is the conflict over having faith in something not understood.

PS: This post is 1157 words long, and has 11 tags – probably a new record. But they’re all relevant, so I can’t remove any!

Winter I – Allegro non molto

January 9, 2010

It snowed here in Dallas on Christmas Eve. My brothers and I decided we had to do something to take advantage of the situation – but there wasn’t yet enough on the ground to have a snowball fight (that came later). So we put on trenchcoats, got out the toy guns (including a homemade model of an M16 rifle – that’s what I’m holding), and started filming stuff.

Then, as we were filming, we realized we had no characters, no story, really nothing except two guys in different color coats shooting at each other. So we decided, in lieu of trying to add those things, to make it a music video for Vivaldi’s Winter, the first movement: Allegro non molto. Because classical music, Weird Al, and the soundtrack to that Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode are the only things my family listens to.

Anyway, today, my brother finally finished editing it, and we uploaded it to youtube. For reasons, it’s not available in Germany.

So Weit Wie Noch Nie

December 22, 2009

I recently came across the song “So Weit Wie Noch Nie” by Jürgen Paape. Here are the lyrics, and my translation of them into English:

Wir hören ein Singen im Raum
Singen im Raum
Singen im Raum
Wir jagen die Monotonie

Wir machen aus Stunden ein Jahr
und Mondschein aus unserem Haar
Wir fliegen so weit wie noch nie


We hear a singing in the room
Singing in the room
Singing in the room
We hunt the monotony

We make out of the hours a year
And moonshine out of our hair
We fly higher than ever before.

What’s fascinating about this song, I think, is the sense of joyous fatalism that it captures. Some friends of mine who heard it said it reminds them of someone intentionally driving a car off a cliff, or maybe into a wall. These were people who don’t know German, but it fits with the lyrics; “we hunt the monotony,” and “we fly higher than ever before.” I used it as background music in a film for German class to impart a similar tone – that the characters’ actions are pointless, but that the pointlessness doesn’t matter, and is even perhaps beautiful.

It’s an interesting aesthetic, one of resignation, of recognizing and accepting the transience of human life.

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