Adventures in Editing

In addition to my love of writing, I am a longtime editor and wanted to share a project in which I was honored to be involved as copyeditor of Elliott Sharp’s autobiographical and philosophically rich Ir/rational Music, published by ECM recording artist David Rothenberg under his Terra Nova imprint. Click the cover to be directed to Amazon and find out more about this fascinating book.

IrRational Music

Book Giveaway Winners!

After feeding the names through CommentPicker.com, I’ve randomly chosen three winners:

Hamish
Daniel Diaz
Uros Spasojevic

Please send me your contact information, and I will send your books out right away. Congratulations to the winners!

ECM Book Giveaway Contest

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Because it will be some time before my book goes international (it is currently only available in South America), I have decided to hold a giveaway contest for you, my dedicated readers. To be entered, simply comment on this post by telling me about one of your favorite ECM albums and why. The contest will close at 11:59pm one week from now, on June 26, at which time I will pick three winners at random to receive a signed copy of the book. Don’t worry if you can’t narrow down to one album. Feel free to write about a favorite artist or handful of albums that have had some influence on you. Anything will qualify you as being entered into the contest. Looking forward to what you write!

Printed Memories…

On 10 February 2010, I began this blog with the goal of reviewing every album issued by ECM Records proper and its New Series imprint. Four years ago, I achieved said goal. Within hours of announcing this milestone, I was approached by Raúl Zea of Rey Naranjo, a publisher of fine books based in Bogotá, Colombia. As it turned out, Raúl was a huge ECM fan and had been reading my blog from almost the beginning. His proposal: To publish a book of selected reviews. My answer: When can we start? Fast-forward to 27 April 2019, and I found myself boarding an airplane bound for the annual Bogotá International Book Fair (a.k.a. FILBo) to hold the volume in my hands at last and present its contents to fans and newcomers alike over the course of five days.

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As the book evolved into its present form as Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer, my editors and I felt it necessary to marshal the reviews to speak to a variety of audiences. True to its designation as a “primer,” it is first and foremost intended as a doorway into the label’s manifold wonders. For that reason, inclusion of such classics as The Köln Concertwas absolutely necessary. On the other hand, I wanted to highlight albums that even seasoned listeners might have overlooked. Out of those two extremes emerged 100 specially curated and recrafted essays, rounded out by a smattering of personal favorites: a journey through ECM’s ongoing history that I hope will inspire readers in new directions of listening.

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Upon arriving at my hotel, I was draped with my FILBo credentials and guided to my publisher’s table. Yet before I could even marvel at a product years in the making, I had to take in the sheer scale of the fair and its throngs of passionate attendees—many of whom, I would discover the next morning, would be lined down the block three hours before opening time.

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As I waded through cliques of voracious readers, I at last came face to face with the editor who had made this trip a reality, and with the work of art he and the Rey Naranjo team had labored to print in time for this event.

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After a round of introductions, and a sampling of local cuisine (including my first bowl of ajiaco), I was ready to succumb to the toll of travel knowing that my love letter to a life-changing record label now had a life of its own.

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The next few days were a promotional whirlwind, including two interviews for Colombian radio, two book talks, an interview with The Bogotá Post, and a video shoot at my publisher’s bookstore, Santo & Seña, for an upcoming crowdfunding campaign in anticipation of the book’s international version (to be released in early 2020). While it was exciting to be the center of so much attention, I also knew that none of it would have taken place without the vital music that had brought me into that center to begin with. Being able to share my knowledge with ECM fans in another country felt like the first step toward a larger conversation that I can only hope my book will provoke and sustain in the future.

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Before leaving the city, I rode a cable car to the top of Monserrate, where Bogotá’s wider embrace became at last apparent.

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The long stairway to the very top was a sobering reminder that no journey is possible without the steps required to bring its destination into view. And, like the gradations of mountain and concrete that bid me farewell, nothing we do is possible without the input of untold lives, laboring through cycles of sun and moon until our blessings are indistinguishable from all others.

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For those blessings, I would especially like to thank Raúl Zea and John Naranjo for believing in me from day one, Andrea Salgado for the gracious invitation, Aurélie Radé for navigating the complexities of airline politics, Dulce María Ramos for coordinating interviews and rushing me to every venue on time, Luisa Martínez for her gentle kindness (and the flower), Guillermo Concha and Liladhar Pendse for proving that strangers should never stay that way for long, Juan Carlos Garay and David Roa for enlightening conversations in front of vastly different audiences, and the interpreters, including Ale Bernal, who rendered those conversations into Spanish under tight circumstances.

Special Announcement

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I am humbled and pleased to announce that my book on ECM is finally coming out this week. Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer is to be published by Rey+Naranjo in a first edition available only to the South American market, then as a global edition early next year (preorders will be available soon).

I have been graciously invited to present two talks at the Bogotá International Book Fair. My first talk will be “ECM Records: Listen, Watch and Remain Silent,” to be given this Sunday, April 28. The second will be “The Collector as Historian,” to be given on April 30th. Please attend and introduce yourself if you’re in the Bogotá area!

More to follow.

Recognition of Mr. Turtle

As some of you may know, I am a professional translator of Japanese fiction into English (a new translation project has, in fact, kept me from reviewing as of late…but stay tuned). My latest translation is of Yusaku Kitano’s science-fiction masterwork, Mr. Turtle, which has gained recent recognition in a write-up from The Japan Times (read here) and a Best Translated Book Award (see here). The book is available on Amazon by clicking the cover below.

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Colin Dayan: With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Book Review)

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Colin Dayan does a rare thing at the crossroads of humanism and animalism by treating each as a reflection of the other. She engages the malleability of either tropism, stepping over the stalemated kings of corporeal and moral rights—which too often shunt their pawns to better enjoy the sound of their own echoes—and into a philosophical realm for which all life partakes equally of vulnerability. Such a project will not sit well with some readers. Neither is it meant to, for the uneasiness brought to life, and death, across the book’s 208 pages is a necessary encounter. In this respect, Dayan is the closest we have to a torchbearer of Vicki Hearne, whose classic Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name comes readily and repeatedly to mind as I read this worthy successor.

In her introduction, too, Dayan sidesteps convention by doing very little of the encapsulations to which academics are encouraged to accede. Rather, she sets up a fledged narrative through a call to action that is harder than it looks. In asking us to do nothing more than sit on the equals sign of the equation between Self and Other she is so artfully devising, she invites a “radical change in perspective: not only in how we see the world but also in how we read a story” (p. xiii). And so, while for her this is a book of tales, it is also a tale unto itself, an entity whose parts share ligaments with too many of our own to pass off as intellectual navel-gazing.

On the surface of Dayan’s theory-planet, dogs would seem to occupy a range of metaphorical terrains. They are, by virtue of variation, at once bridges between opposing states of sentience and being, bearers of revelation, personal property, “non-human persons,” and, in the most sweeping of Hearne-isms, language incarnate. Closer inspection, however, reveals these as more than cloak-and-dagger tricks of a talented wordsmith, but instead as markers of lived realities. For this reason, Dayan is far more interested in the “oscillation between the categories that bind” (p. xiv) than in the binding of oscillation into categories, and in destabilization of human positionality as the capstone of a worldview pyramid. She outs the project of judgment as one of collective privilege, reveals the empathetic precedent of ethical action, and the power of “mutual discomfort” (p. 110) to bring all into a truer sense of community.

From this emerges a tripartite concerto for canine soloists fronting an orchestra of conundrums. Part I, “Like a Dog,” is that concerto’s Allegro, and as such sifts passionately yet accessibly through autobiographical recollections of dogs living and non. “We are living in a time of extinctions,” she observes (p. 2), a central point she takes care to reiterate in the book’s EPK, and one which points to the harsh truths unraveling therefrom. And not only a time of extinctions, but of killings sanctioned by a society bent on devaluing dogs and other animals to the status of criminals.

Dayan reminds a missing piece in recent national conversations around police brutality: treatment of racialized humans as animals walks hand in hand with treatment of animals as racialized humans, and allows an indulgence of taboos normally relegated to the annals of private exploitation. And so, a discussion of pit bulls banned from low-income housing in New York City, for instance, not only discloses the absurdity of fears around specified breeds, but also sobers us to the sheer publicity of blatant discriminations and our acceptance of their ubiquity. While most, I think, can see that racial typing often revolves around the animalization of designated groups of human beings, forgotten is the humanization of designated species of animals. Which is why Dayan recognizes the all-too-common shootings of pit bulls as a national habit or, more viscerally, “a ritual that reminds citizens of the reach of lawful predation” (p. 9). It is with these dynamics in mind that she thinks back to the earliest dogs in her life, the necessity of their warm-blooded bodies against her own. An especially poignant discovery of a childhood photograph reminds her of a dog she never remembered, and whose anchorage draws light through the prism of this book as a magnet would iron filings.

In continued service of my musical analogy, I would characterize Part II, “When Law Comes to Visit,” as the central Largo. For while its rhythms might seem more furious and jagged, its carefully measured effect suggests the ponderousness of that very time signature. Here dogs unfold as sociopolitical animals, each subject to fatal blows of the law. Hypocrisies abound in such stories as that of Floyd Boudreaux, a breeder of American pit bull terriers who was erroneously accused of being a dog fighting kingpin and, once deemed as such, had to suffer the extermination of his entire line. By such acts, the warmongering tendencies of the state become a primary network in which worthiness of life comes to be determined (only the moral elite can kill dogs without being deemed cruel). Regardless of the motivations, be they financial or political, the fact is that the law legitimizes imagined threats and sanctifies animal exterminations through illusions of compassion (Boudreaux’s dogs were being done a favor, as the script goes, by being removed from danger to others and themselves). Pit bulls in this regard suffer the particular brunt of an historical amnesia in the United States, and have become the unfortunate collateral of stigmatization.

Part III, “Pariah Dogs,” is the concluding Vivace. In it, Dayan explores the expendability and vitality in kind of cinematic dogs, who on the one hand serve as mascots of loss, while on the other burst with so much awareness of things that it is all we can do to match their levels of understanding. “The fullness of a dog’s loyalty or commitment,” Dayan avers, “can be understood only as counter to the merely intellectual acceptance of a doctrine” (p. 159), and as such the dog comes to embody an unattainable state, so that “to position oneself in this way, even if tenuously, both inside and outside a human background, is to let our bond with dogs count for something momentous” (p. 162). So yes, Dayan has invited us to sit alongside her, with dogs, at the edge of life, but also to contemplate what happens when those same dogs are pushed off that edge. And where would they exist in our memories if not for brave writers like her to document their receding gaze with such honest fortitude?

And because the bricks of such a book might topple without the mortar of its personal experiences, I can’t help but end with one of my own, remembering a dog I met on the streets of Beijing who responded to constant harassment from local shop owners with a heaving sigh. I think of this image when Dayan writes, “Dogs have infinite patience” (p. 144), reading into those darkly set eyes nothing less than that very patience, which sees through my camera lens and into the heart of the one cradling it like the relic it will one day become.

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Stephen D. Miller: The Wind from Vulture Peak (Book Review)

The Wind from Vulture Peak

In his 2013 monograph, The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period, Stephen D. Miller takes readers on a cordial walk through a transition in Japan’s flourishing Heian period (794-1185), when poetry of the imperial court, known as waka, welcomed Buddhist concepts into its folds. Miller’s central argument—that, approaching and inclusive of the twelfth century, Japanese wordsmiths incorporated conspicuous Buddhist principles into the composition of their waka—may be easy to understand in theory, but requires just the sort of meticulous analysis Miller brings to his interpretations of said poetry, and the social cycles of which it came to be a part, to see with clarity.

While noble poet Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204) is, in existing scholarship, upheld as a pioneer of this devotional sea change, Miller finds him representing a “culmination” of interdisciplinary motivations dating back as far as the Nara period (710-784). The uniqueness of waka as a venue for such a turn lies in the fact that it was (stereo)typically associated with love (or, more often, lack thereof), seasonal aesthetics, and nature, and that it seems as unlikely a conduit as any for the soteriological—that is, salvation-oriented—thrust of Buddhist doctrine. The eternity of enlightenment beckons in stark contrast to the fleeting secularism of orthodox waka. At the same time, Miller goes to great lengths to, in his words, “look carefully at the kinds of poems Japanese poets considered Buddhist—or compiled in such ways as to become Buddhist—as a means of elucidating how the Japanese came to regard the waka as holding salvific power” (p. 4). The em-dashed point is an important one, as it affirms the power of narrative infused into poetry by the very act of compilation, by which new interrelationships may be teased from the very suggestion of their correlation.

When continental Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538, it existed apart from any sort of poetic tradition on the archipelago, and would not combine with it until five centuries later. It was only gradually that worlds of religious and courtly life expanded as two lungs in the same poetic chest. Yet religious poems, Miller avers, have spiritual and social origins, and as such must be taken in their wider contexts, whenever known. Even in absence of clear evidence, the sequencing of poems may reveal just as much about the intentions behind their creation. Poetry thus becomes something of a divine force in and of itself, at once ecumenical in its regard for earthly things and doctrinally specific to its intended audience. Indeed, if spiritual development can be a vehicle for poetry, so can poetry be a vehicle for spiritual development.

All of the above is easily grasped from Miller’s robust introduction, the meatiest of the book’s courses. What follows it is a deep reading of the Buddhist poems, translated in collaboration with poet Patrick Donnelly, from five major imperial anthologies. In chapter two, Miller explores the notion of what defines Buddhist poetry, and makes a clear distinction between that which can be called overtly Buddhist (shakkyō-ka) and that worthier of the euphemism “Buddhistic.” The last of his anthologies of interest is therefore most significant, for it is the first to contain a book dedicated entirely to shakkyō-ka. Miller cites a constellation of factors behind this evolution, notably the increasing overlap between certain Buddhist institutions and the imperial court itself, and in the use of poetry by monks and their acolytes as an active tool of devotion.

Chapter three holds a magnifying glass to the Shūishū of 1005-1007, in which Buddhist-inflected versification reads with less religiosity than later counterparts, even as it retains a salvific tinge. Still, what these poems may lack in contemplation they make up for in their combination of the social (read: material) and the unsocial (read: abstract), resulting in what Miller calls “religio-literary artifact[s]” (p. 119). One of my favorite exchanges (pp. 96-97), in fact, appears in the same Shūishū, wherein Ōnakatomi no Yoshinobu sends the following elegiac poem to an anonymous nun:

the “I” who grieves
thought I was the only one
to put on black—

but did you too
give your back
to a world of hurt?

Her reply switches out some of Yoshinobu’s spice for her own:

my reason
“to put on black”
may seem different—

but believe me:
we wear that color
together

Though the above exchange might seem vague in comparison to future developments in Buddhist poetry, Miller validates the foundational nature of their appearance in the Shūishū.

The Goshūishū is the subject of chapter 4, where the term shakkyō-ka warrants formal application, due to the nineteen poems’ sub-categorical designation as such in the 1086 anthology. Miller again sets the stage by connecting the collection to a number of social and political catalysts, not least of all the rising importance of mappō (the Latter Days of the Law), a period in which the teachings of the historical Buddha were seen to be under threat by human perversion. The Goshūishū further distinguishes itself by engaging sūtras, as opposed to the social gleanings prevalent in the Shūishū. Even these seem preparatory for the larger hit of Buddhist poetry in the Kin’yōshū of 1127 and subsequent drop in the Shikashū (ca. 1151), both the subjects of chapter 5. That the relevant poems in the Kin’yōshū are not explicitly tagged as Buddhist, relegated instead to a miscellany at the end, lends them a certain mystical quality.

All of these sentiments and more come to a head in the Senzaishū of 1187, the backdrop of which shimmers in all its turbulence and uncertainty in chapter 6 before yielding its poetic morsels in chapter 7, in which Miller unpacks the shakkyō-ka therefrom. In this case, blatantly scriptural examples are more prevalent, and play out in chronological order.

Historical rigor aside, Vulture Peak offers an inimitable reading experience in the form of its delectable translations. Miller and Donnelly, as they do in life, make a formidable team, and the combination of their forces allows an indulgence rarely attainable in the translation of classical Japanese poetry. Their efforts won them the 2015-2016 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize, and deservedly so. (So enjoyable are their renderings that even those with little to no interest in the stratagems of academic writing would do well to have this book on their shelves if they should profess any interest in poetic form.) In light of their accomplishment, holding theirs against any number of other eminent translations feels like parsing diamonds from cubic zirconia: to most they are equally captivating, but upon further inspection by trained eyes reveal different balances of occlusion and preciousness. Take, for instance, the following poem by Sei Shōnagon (of Pillow Book fame) from the Senzaishū:

having come this far
to find the real

 do you think I’d run
back to the sad world

 and toss away the blessing
dew on this lotus

Compare this to R. Keller Kimbrough’s version, as it appears in his book Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way: Izumi Shikibu and the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Japan:

Beckon as you may,
the dew has come to rest
upon the lotus.
So how could I return
to this world of sorrow?

It would not be fair to say that one is “better” than the other, as this would discount the mental energies expended in the creation of either, but the sheer embodiment of the former sets it apart. It is no longer just a translation, but a viable poetic entity in and of itself, circulating its own life force, beyond the constraints of time. And it’s not only the poems but Miller’s pacing of them, both visually and philosophically, throughout the book that reveals a compiler’s instinct in himself.

For these very reasons, one needn’t identify as Buddhist or even be interested in Buddhism as a way of life in order to appreciate the subtlety of his analytical timeline. For while his chosen waka might very well be read as embodying the Buddhist michi or “way,” they also are a path unto themselves, molecules that exist only to be digested through the mind and squeezed into single neutrons by the heart’s tender beating. Words are forgotten only so that they might be remembered, each a stepping-stone toward detachment, as best expressed in the following poem by Priest Kenshō:

when I ladled the valley water—

who
spent a thousand years
becoming my friends—

only my reflection?

And who are we if not Kenshō, scooping up the universe in a cup, only to watch it evaporate into the empty air like so much breath?