Patricia Ward: Skinner Luce (Book Review)

Skinner Luce

Distinguishing autobiographical bleed-through on any author’s fictional canvas can be a tricky business. In the case of Patricia Ward, it’s impossible to ignore. Her first novel, The Bullet Collection, followed two sisters through war-torn Beirut, where Ward herself grew up during a period of civil unrest. Her second, Skinner Luce, a full-fledged SFF parable, operates within a likeminded trauma spectrum. Here’s a story where alienation is a precondition for individual growth, a form of resignation echoed in the experiences of a writer who fled certain death in her teens, since which time she has lived and worked in the United States.

Ward’s alter ego is Lucy, one of many “servs” acting as go-betweens for an alien race, the seemingly immortal Nafikh, and the human beings oblivious to their visitations. The Nafikh seek out Earth as humans do Las Vegas—which is to say, as an excuse for uninhibited recreation. The Nafikh try their best to blend in, to varying degrees of success. Veterans manage to hold their human form, while newbies are prone to violent unraveling. In either case, servs must be present to ensure the safety of everyone involved. It’s an enslaved existence for Lucy, whose every assignment might be her last. The parallels to modern trafficking ring that much more loudly for Ward’s insight into the pain Lucy endures daily.

Said pain is not only emotional. It’s also physical, as servs are animated by the Source, an internal combustion engine that could extinguish itself at any moment, and which fills Lucy’s body with chronic torment that can only be alleviated by drugs. The pain fluctuates depending on circumstance, is more intense when close to another serv and most so in the presence of Nafikh. Serv overseers, on the other hand, are granted regular access to painkillers, as befitting their station, while Lucy, being lower on the Service food chain, makes do with alcohol.

The Nafikh travel to earth by means of Gates, favoring the winter months that presumably mirror their home climate. Most Nafikh cannot tolerate being around humans without causing at least some collateral damage, but are too addicted to Earth’s mortal taste to stop anytime soon. Hence, the terrifying irony of the serv’s existence: Lucy wants nothing more than to escape her cage, even as the Nafikh take perverse pleasure in locking themselves inside it. Servs are expendable, and Lucy must count the days until her quota has been filled, her only mantra being to get out of every situation alive so that she can get that much closer to independence.

One complication makes her unique among servs: she was raised by a human family. Whereas servs typically keep close quarters among their own kind, Lucy spends her formative years for all as human until a late coming of age into Service splits her loyalties down the middle. She has tried her best to live a “normal” life among humans, but with no certain place among either species she has hit an identity crisis at the novel’s beginning when transitioning a newly arrived serv, whom her corrupt overseer plans to sell on the black market. Lucy thinks back to her own arrival, which she is glad to have been too young to remember. The infant in her care is minimally communicative and maximally frightened, and she wonders how much this dynamic will change as the new serv matures.

Lucy’s deviant behavior as a teenager once plugged her into the foster home circuit, but through it all she has maintained an amicable relationship with her mother. Along the way she meets Julian, a serv who sees through her right away and briefly wins her heart. Through him she learns to enjoy her status, even as it assails her by its secrecy. She then allies herself with Theo, another resourceful serv, who bought Julian out from Service into freedom. Lucy is excited about the prospect of joining Julian and Theo in the fullness of their image, if only to escape the farce she’s been living. But a schism between the two men provokes existential hardship. Where Julian sees the Nafikh as their godly creators, Theo is convinced that all servs were once were Nafikh and that they might share more than they let on. Their very Source indicates Nafikh origins, a fact Julian has harnessed to combat their “mortal incarceration” by procuring surplus Source to keep them from aging. At once tempted and repelled by this vampirism, Lucy continues as is.

Now that Lucy and Julian are no longer together, the excitement of those days having eroded the shell of her existence, she resents him for being able to afford his own relief, leaving her ill-equipped to support his radical cause. But neither can she pour her empathy into new arrivals, who fill her with disgust. When her latest charge awakens, she cleans and feeds him, saddened by the fact that he is already addicted to the narcotics that ease his hurting. When she sees a picture in the paper of the same boy dead in a junkyard just days later, her flickering suspicions of Julian and his gang grow into an inferno. And when Lucy is questioned by a sympathetic homicide detective who may or may not understand who she really is, her life goes through its own unraveling, starting her on an unforgettable quest for self.

In a 2016 guest post for SF Signal, Ward admits that the traumas of a past she thought were behind her have resurfaced in her creative endeavors. To be sure, we can intuit hints of what must have been a precarious childhood for both author and protagonist, as when Lucy visits home on Christmas Eve, only to receive from her mother a family photo album utterly lacking in chronology, thus presenting her life as a series of unconnected pieces. Even more salient are the coping mechanisms Lucy must manufacture within if she is to maintain any semblance of sanity without. “This is her forte: shutting down, waiting things out,” Ward writes, confirming the mindset of a perpetual victim.

Neither can we ignore the novel’s parallels with modern politics. Does it mean nothing that “servs” sounds like “Serbs,” recalling Bosnian wars of the late 1990s? Is Lucy’s daily grind really so different from our own? Are similarities to the recent Syrian refugee crises coincidental? In answering such questions, we validate the novel’s timely exploration of pandemic abuse. All of which nourishes a bittersweet ending that leaves Lucy beholden to the same system. She clings to hatred throughout the novel, but comes to see it as a useless trap of indifference. She is a leaf on a tree that’s resigned to autumn’s arrival. Still, something leads her to believe the Nafikh care, for she knows her tormenters are also slaves, if only to themselves.

Reading through this novel the first time, I felt like Ward was too often focusing on unnecessary details. For example, after a bloody altercation, she writes, “The splatter on the wall is thick. It has brain in it. Wallpaper can’t be cleaned. It’ll have to be replaced, and it’s such a job, removing the old, patching the plaster. It’ll cost, unless she does it,” when the first sentence alone would have sufficed. Events should be driven by action, I thought, not exposition. But after revisiting a few choice passages, I began to see these fixations as defense mechanisms of a mind seeking points of distraction from persistent horrors. In having to remind myself that Lucy, as a serv, was in constant pain, I realized I knew nothing of what it was like. That said, this novel demonstrates one of the most appropriate uses of the present tense I’ve encountered in a long while, adding as it does to the immediacy of Lucy’s truth-seeking.

Deceptions toward the end may spoil the fun for some, but for me made the story more realistic. And this is the book’s real social value: it makes us more uncomfortable the more we invest in it, because life for a refugee is no different. Ward has proven that finding oneself is only half the battle. The rest is keeping that self once in grasp.

(This review originally appeared in the now-defunct SF Signal, and is archived here.)

Fred Strydom: The Raft (Book Review)

The Raft

To a growing list of South African science/speculative fictionists (think Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz), one must add Fred Strydom, his novel The Raft being one of the most unnerving dystopian tales to emerge in recent memory. Memory is indeed paramount in Strydom’s feature debut, most of which takes place after Day Zero, when a mysterious, piercing whine reset the entire Earth to mental zero in what one character calls “baptism by amnesia.” Since then, humankind has had to rebuild itself amid waves of intermittent recall and cerebral puzzle-piecing.

The novel awakens on a beach through the eyes of its narrator, Kayle Jenner, who has managed to regain enough semblance of self to know his son Andy has gone missing and that he must find the boy at all costs if he is ever to feel whole again. The island he calls home — or which is, more accurately, dubbed home for his sake — confirms an unusual brand of apocalypse, one not of environmental but mental obliteration. Survivors have broken off into communes ruled by a dictatorial regime that calls itself The Body, whose role is to ensure that no one remembers too much of former days. Armed with quasi-communist ideals, the island’s overseers go to questionable lengths to ensure that none of its inhabitants is sullied by the taint of possession.

Kayle’s emotional palette is a spectrum of doubt, hope, and possibility. He holds on to dreams and nightmares alike as the only bastions of true selfhood. Assaulted by names and faces which should mean something to him but only seem to mock him behind closed eyes, he fears even these will be taken away while undergoing compulsory interrogations, during which members of The Body grill him on notions of God, power, and the nature of reality. The nominal goal of these “interviews” is to disconnect him from the hierarchical and materialistic tendencies that once pulled the globe into a spiral of moral depravity. As outlined in their ideological handbook, The Age of Self Primary, of which expository pericopes dot the novel, it was an immoral age done great service by Day Zero, a wrinkle in time rightly ironed out by catastrophe and firmed by the starch of psychological reinforcement. Kayle fails to see it this way, but with no foreseeable exit it’s all he can do to avoid projecting his fear on to a cosmos where every star becomes the wink of a derisive eye.

Details of pre-dystopian life are scarce but adequate enough to imagine one possible future for ourselves. Compulsory advertisements burned into bread by smart toasters, palm-reading screens that open and start cars, and whisper-quiet transports give glimpses of the conveniences left behind for the new primitivism. Much of the novel’s drama, however, turns the gestures of relatively organic technologies into life-altering changes, and by these Kayle will stumble across the truth of what his world has become. But it is the commune, for him “a place of bareness,” where personal demons are given room to roam. The description could hardly be more accurate. On the commune, free will is as intangible as the lives the island’s inhabitants struggle to remember, and salvation withered beyond ornament.

The novel’s titular raft is one of three reserved for the island’s wrongdoers, who are drugged, strapped to its floating planks, and forced to endure the mood swings of an unforgiving sea for days on end. When Kayle finds himself so punished for an “indiscretion” better withheld for the reader’s discovery, his journey toward finding the cause behind Day Zero and the whereabouts of his son carries him to landscapes at once forgiving and hostile.

By writing almost entirely in the first person, Strydom has dared break a strident rule of the debut novelist. To be sure, nearly all of his characters, regardless of age or background, speak with a likeminded vocabulary and cadence, while the few who don’t must rely on blatant verbal ticks — witness the inexplicable stutter of Kayle’s later accomplice — to differentiate themselves. Then again, this has the added effect of emphasizing the fact that everyone has been degaussed to some base mode of communication, and that The Body’s brainwashing has been effective.

There is, furthermore, a slew of flavor text to wade through, and similes are as frequent as the crack of a bat at a baseball game. Thankfully, Strydom’s are so lovely that one can enjoy the creativity of his writing without getting too bogged down in indulgent wordplay. One might further interpret his metaphorical twists as attempts on Kayle’s part to assert connections in a broken world (here is an author who values the scope of possibility as much as the possibility of scope). That Strydom’s educational background is in visual media will therefore come as no surprise. He writes like a filmmaker. His gifts for atmosphere are downright videographic, and at times his descriptions of places, in especial light of the island theme, feel like something out of Robyn and Rand Miller’s Myst series. He employs another cinematic and, given the novel’s conceit, rather ironic device: that of perfect recollection, as characters share conversations and letters verbatim when recounting personal stories. But Strydom’s love for those stories, and for the characters telling them, trumps any minor quibbles, leaving us with a destination more than worth the travel required to get there.

(This review originally appeared on the now-defunct SF Signal, and is archived here.)

Book Review: Music to Silence to Music – A Biography of Henry Grimes

Music to Silence to Music

In his foreword to Music to Silence to Music: A Biography of Henry Grimes, Sonny Rollins recalls his first encounter with the young bassist in Philadelphia: “He seemed to hear and immediately respond…in an unbroken circuit between muse and man.” Likewise, German historian Barbara Frenz’s lovingly penned biography wires an unbroken circuit between reader and subject.

Frenz jumps improvisationally from reportage to interview. The resulting portrait is as multifaceted as the man himself. Grimes may not be interested in the anecdotal, but his memories yield a veritable résumé of iconic associations. By the early ’60s he was swimming in the deep end of New York City’s jazz scene, where collaborations with the likes of Albert Ayler unlocked his evolutionary potential. In 1967, just two years after his first leader date, he left the East Coast for the west and wasn’t heard from for nearly four decades. Grimes was forced to sell his bass in Los Angeles, where he sustained himself through odd jobs until he was rediscovered in 2002. He has been playing ever since, much to the glee of listeners and journalists alike, playing hundreds of concerts and surpassing even his own exalted reputation in the process. During the silence, he didn’t so much as touch an instrument. And yet, as Frenz makes clear, the music was always germinating inside him, along with a literary worldview that would feed back into his reprisal endeavors. His poetry is dark yet insightful and, like his soloing, focuses its attention on human interaction.

With this biography, Frenz has undone the misconception of Grimes as reticent ghost, arguing instead for his bold expressiveness while further emphasizing his versatility, go-with-the-flow attitude, and inner growth. His past contributions are obvious, but, as Frenz is quick to point out, his importance to the future of jazz even more so. Rather than an introvert who almost faded into obscurity, she wants us to see him as someone uninterested in attachments, living as he has—and always will—in the immaterial.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2016 The New York City Jazz Record, of which a PDF of the full issue is available here.)

Book Review: Entangled Empathy by Lori Gruen

Entangled Empathy

Just as feminist allegiance means nothing without challenging patriarchy, it’s no longer enough to be pro-animal without engaging the emotional systems in which nonhuman rights have become ensnared. Such thinking inhales through the lungs of Entangled Empathy, from which philosopher Lori Gruen exhales a timely call to action.

Gruen begins where she must: by thumbnail-sketching her activist history, during which time she grew critical of “animal suffering,” already too vague a term to be of value to a political throat parched for want of specificity. Entangled empathy comes as a refinement of Gruen’s formative scholarship on sympathy, wherein she critiqued utilitarian animal rights trendsetters like Peter Singer for their paltry affective resonance and inability to articulate the hierarchical infrastructures from which hang the skeletons of those gone before.

As Gruen defines it, empathy is more than glorified sympathy. In the latter framework, the effects of any active moral agent (read: sympathizer) amount to nothing more than singularities. One nods, however deeply, in the general direction of doing good but moves on for having done so, leaving systemic origins unscathed. Ignorance of the profound relationships between victims and victimizers leads to compartmentalization of self-interest. Which is why we should be ever-wary of hypotheticals, such as the infamous “child or the dog” (only one of whom you have time to save from a burning house) scenario posed by Gary Francione. These leave us unhealthily equipped for the interactive possibilities of daily circumstance. While it may behoove one to recognize the spectrum of responses possible in crisis situations, confining those responses into arenas of the mind is of little more use than throwing heretics to lions.

Gruen is critical of sameness-over-difference arguments such as those espoused by another pioneering thinker, Tom Regan. Her gripe is not with the motivation but with the perpetuation of human standards as existential norms that reinforce what she calls an “arrogant anthropocentrism,” an ideology by which human significance trumps itself with illusions of grandeur. The problem with Singer and Regan is that neither’s argument is particularized. It comes down to the difference between being rational and relational. In response, Gruen proposes a compound approach in which similarities and differences are vitalized through context.

Because, really, the issue at hand is not the attribution of human qualities to animals, but lack of recognition in their entanglement. Gruen parries those who cry “anthropomorphism” by forging connections with the little things. The dangers of anthropomorphism, then, lie not in the projection of selves onto others but the erasure of others through selves. When we ascribe feelings and thoughts to animals, we are not imparting the uniquely human, but elucidating inner qualities. True anthropomorphism is assuming that animals are empty machines. Such thinking fits snugly alongside Kay Milton’s alternative concept of egomorphism, a process by which ego or self becomes the golden standard of all earthly life and serves to frame economy as a social relation.

The value of Gruen’s approach flowers through its recognition of relationships in an interconnected world. Though human suffering statistically pales in comparison to animal suffering, focus on the former betrays an egomorphic attribution of importance that blankets fatalities of creaturely life with a central ideal. Gruen can only fault the bulk of ethical theory for being so inaccessible in this regard, separated as it is from on-the-ground practice. The conundrum of standard ethical arguments lies in the fact that they, in Gruen’s words, “flatten or erase the complexity of actual moral problems.” The key word here is actual. Connecting to lived experiences is paramount in any ethical project.

Gruen’s project is, above all, a feminist one for valuing the truth of experience as something more than narrative evidence. There is no relational existence without some form of communication at play. Her approach deeply echoes, and builds upon, Marc Bekoff’s concept of “deep ethology” in that it recognizes animals as beings who thrive on communal living. Not only does she follow in the compassionate footprints of Bekoff in advocating an empathetic worldview; she fills those footprints with theoretical plaster and paints them in the practical colors of the activist’s palette. It’s an approach, too, that sidesteps unproductive debate around the concept of sentience—which, no matter how you slice it, portions its largest share to Homo sapiens—by asserting that animals deserve respect by sheer virtue of their existence. It’s not about bringing animals to our exalted level of difference, but recognizing that differences are nature itself. It is the realization that, through manipulation of nature, unfounded cruelties, and the exaltation of humans above other animals, we all have blood on our hands. Which brings us to the ecological core of her argument. This is the only logical direction in which to move, looking at the integrations of inner and outer, nature and nurture, fear and determination that are the lifeblood of advocacy. As an activist, Gruen is one who turns to this state of affairs not with confrontation, but with the realization that, as author pattrice jones would have it, living beings are “open systems” rather than objects. Seeing our bodies as systems within systems renders lofty separation impossible.

Empathy is a proven evolutionary process. Specificity is key to unlocking and understanding malfeasances of cultural appropriation and other forms of dominance-based thinking. Taking ourselves beyond comfort zones is a small price to pay when we’ve done nothing but take animals out of theirs. Gruen’s response is something far more important than a paradigm shift. It is the recognition that paradigms are themselves precepts of a hierarchically minded species. Recognition of entanglement illuminates the necessity of the micro in the meso, and of the meso in the macro.

Understanding moral perception, as practiced through this radical form of empathy, means being self-aware and reflective. It also means being preemptive. It necessarily makes mistakes through anticipation. It is a learning process. This is why Gruen aligns herself with the sadly under-recognized feminist ethics of care tradition, which harbors no illusions of objectivity or impartiality, but instead embraces integrations of subjective awareness. Entanglement breaks down the binary opposition of justice and care and guides us instead into a relational perspective of action and response, thereby honoring the truths of difference and their many manifestations across demarcations of race, class, and geographic location. Just as Bekoff argues that animals’ emotional lives are public, Gruen shows they are vividly private. And yet, we can no longer say the personal is political, because this ignores the fact that we live in an age where the political has become too personal, invading corporeal and psychological spaces with ideologies that lure us from entanglement.

Empathy is a tall order in the present day. On this point Gruen would seem to follow jones in seeing the schism between self and world as the result of a traumatic separation from nature, one subject to both conscious and unconscious reinforcement from all directions. Emotions are both physical and social, defining and reflecting dominant paradigm shifts in relation to the connectedness of all life. They are generative tools in matrices of binding force. All action moves forward. All action carries repercussions. All action is change. None of this suggests that empathy cannot be overused or misguided, for what Gruen calls epistemic failures (incorrect readings of situations) are always possible. This is why attention to the self is so vital. Just as alienation compounds itself, so does empathy generate more of the same. All it takes is a bit of logic and willingness to observe, listen, and speak through action.

Book Review: In Divisible Cities by Dominic Pettman

In Divisible Cities

If Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is an act of translation, then Dominic Pettman’s self-styled “phanto-cartographic” missive, In Divisible Cities (published 2013 by dead letter office), is a translation of a translation. Not of locales into words, but of impulses into figures. Where one plies intellect as world-building, a process wherein repetition is the consensus of quotidian life, the other delineates mappings that are themselves generative. Calvino says, “Desires are already memories.” Pettman says, “Memory is already an act of desire.” Pettman’s book is therefore more of a responsory, his words a string of choruses to the soloists of altered images. The latter, courtesy of visual artist Merritt Symes, bypass illusory stillness in favor of a dialogue that moves with every page-flip. Like the list of cities that opens the text in flying V formation, they embody a migration of fixity.

Pettman proceeds diaristically, if not diacritically, through recollections and impressions, savvily reworking experience into expression. Overseeing all of this, as much as tearing it to shreds, is a nameless “she,” whose steps dislodge the virgin spring of ink for maps skin-written along the way. As much thumbprints as footprints, “her” traces dig reliquaries of travel to be filled with souvenirs of perception. They are engaged in what the author calls a “mutual stalking,” a cartoonish tangle of limbs from and into which flows the shared singularity of their comportment.

It’s never enough, he seems to say, to transgress one’s home toward attaining another. One must be prepared to unscramble the very notion of maturation in order to appreciate the encryptions of the childlike, to see the self as actor in want of scripts and foreseeable locales on continents of broken machinery.

The fatigue of modern life, then, is not in the everyday but in the unrelenting stock-taking of the everyday. As Pettman notes in a flash essay entitled “Material Girls,” our desire for any commodity is proportional to its evanescence. “To barely be there: the ultimate fashion statement,” he writes, piecing together some of “her” shreds into portraits as ephemeral as their subjects. In the wake of this observation, it’s difficult to abide by the rationale of collective ennui—no longer the fear of death but of living that stuffs far too many of us into the vegetable drawers of this refrigerator we call society, forgotten until the smell alerts higher-ups to their crimes.

As “ontological origami,” cities crease their inhabitants until they begin to interlock, so that if one falls the others will feel it. This explains Pettman’s need to communicate with everyone, even when it means talking to no one. The absence of human contact is its own form of construction, being an attempt to fill space with that which has never occurred. In this sense, empathy, collaboration, and sex are all mappings in disguise.

Wrapped in the blanket of such narrative anthropology, the reader may wonder how order can have survived so long in the hovels of mammalian intellect. One possible answer lies in the ambiguity not only of geography but also orthography. Presence of, and allegiance to, the almighty scrawl carries those same scents which, in finding their way inside this planet’s nasal passages, have provoked some of the most brilliant sneezes in history.

But Pettman’s is, below all, a speculative geography. His interest is in the preemptive, as if places somehow yielded their addresses instead of bearing them as retroactive badges. Because some places are too obvious, while others barely leave their pieces in you. Because disappearance is the most difficult project of the imagination. Because the only way to complete a journey is to leave its destination behind.

In the complex of these emotional keytones, it’s all we can do to matter. For while earthly engines may run on fuels as yet unspoken, their implosion is so clear it hurts like a staring contest with the sun. At least we can be sure of one thing: Love has blasted its trumpets through every city more than any other music, and if we listen hard enough, we just might recognize a tune.

(Click here to experience the digital version of In Divisible Cities.)

Book Review: How To Write About Music

How To Write About Music

How to Write About Music isn’t a manual. It’s a crystal ball worthy of any aspiring music writer’s gaze. It doesn’t hold your hand from concept to copy, but arranges tools you’ll need to get there on your terms.

The essays are excerpted from magazines, books, blogs, and the prestigious 33 1/3 series, of which this volume is a part. Lack of familiarity with the series is all the more reason anyone who gives a wit about the craft should have it in hand. The table of contents reads like a musical composition in its own right. Each themed chapter reflects a rhythmic structure of essays preceded by an introduction and advice from industry leaders and followed by writing prompts to get your utensils moving. In addition to these are interludes, dubbed “The Go-Betweens,” offering advice on salient issues such as networking, information sources, and critical essentials. Within the latter I note a common theme of empathy, which might well be the most important quality to cultivate as a writer of any persuasion. Witness my own review of a Jordi Savall concert I attended in 2015, for which I balanced aversion to the performed with empathy for the performer.

To the list of writerly necessaries, I add my own: be fearless. There have been instances, especially when writing about a live concert, during which I felt conflicted about my reactions. Unlike an album, one doesn’t have the luxury of playing such an event over and over, digesting it for however long feels necessary before textually fixing its place in time. But as music writer Paul Griffiths once told me, “Sometimes your job is to confirm what the audience already knows.” It has indeed been my experience, assuming I’ve been open to what was happening on stage, that my readers—at least those who come forward—have tended to share my assessments. Have confidence in that. Your readers are likely to feel just as uncomfortable with a gushing review of a patently horrible concert than a haterly review of a stellar one.

Effective music criticism is not merely that which tries to convince you to experience the art in question but that which allows you understand why anyone else would. In this regard, Lou Reed’s piece on Kanye West’s Yeezus is emblematic. It may not turn you into a follower, and it may not even strengthen an existing fan’s respect, but it may just convince you to throw caution to the Westerly wind and take it for what it is. Reed does, of course, treat Yeezus as a musical object, but does so by situating it culturally and socially. A superb piece by Alex Ross on Radiohead in the “Artist Profile” chapter displays likeminded attention to detail in providing context for the band, as well as context for the context. It helps, too, that the anecdotal bits Ross includes are vivid, often humorous, and always relevant. Descriptive turns of phrase, used well, can provide the same function. A case in point is John Jeremiah Sullivan, who in his protracted musings on Axl Rose says so much about the Guns N’ Roses frontman with so little: “With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet.” Another favorite in this vein is the article by Lindsay Zoladz on feminist punk outfit Pussy Riot’s visit to the Brooklyn Museum, of which the last line is classic characterization: “By the end of the week, I can’t decide if I’ve been in the presence of a group of real-life superheroes, or just getting to know a couple of down-to-earth Clark Kents.” Only a fan could have written this.

Everyone who ingests this volume will, I think, absorb more of one particular piece over the rest. For me, “Metal Machine Music: Composing With Machines” is the finest morsel. With his starkly metaphorical yet simpatico language, Brian Morton describes an internal landscape of technology and plugs the reader into it like a thirsty chip. Other notables abound throughout How to Write About Music. Highlights in the “Track-By-Track” section include a free dive into the antics of Taylor Swift by the prodigious Tavi Gevinson (only 17 when she wrote it) and Mary Gaitskill’s endearing love letter to B-Movie’s “Nowhere Girl.” A standout in the personal essay section is James Wood’s piece on Keith Moon. Even my label of expertise, ECM Records, gets due props in Rick Moody’s “On Celestial Music,” in which he cites Arvo Pärt’s Tabula rasa as a turning point in his engagement with so-called “serious” music. So-called alternative forms of expression are also given space to roam, and of them a snippet of the graphic novel on Black Flag by Marty Davis is fabulous.

Refreshing about this book is the variety of contradictory perspectives. Notice, for example, in the “Artist Interview” section that some advocate learning as little as possible about the artist in question while others encourage knowing everything inside and out (then forgetting it). This allows one to be adaptable to conversational turns. In the same section, Paul Morley notes that to write about music is to make myth, saying, “the best music writing generates great, billowing lies, elaborates the effective fantasy of great music, rather than confirming facts and meekly agreeing with dates, descriptions and existing classification.” On point, to be sure. Music writing is not a seeking of truth but a confirmation of its malleability. The axiom bears out repeatedly in the art of the interview, of which the book has more fine examples. Thomas Sayers Ellis’s conversation with Bootsy Collins is instructive. Before reading it, one need only look at the structure. Ellis’s short, occasionally single-word, sentences in bold, and long, rambling paragraphs from Collins reveal an interviewer who listens, sympathizes, and provokes. He merely shoots the cue ball and provides the carom for every pocketed ball thereafter.

Nearest to my practitioner’s heart is the section on blogs, the chosen authors of which confirm the combined importance of the internet and social media as bastions of where music criticism is headed. As an avid blogger with nearly a million words to his credit, I can only say: Don’t treat the blog as an erasable format. Though I will occasionally go back to old blog posts to fix grammatical or factual errors, I never radically alter content. A blog is a record of your evolution as a thinker. But because opinions can and do change, whenever my relationship to an album has dramatically deviated from first impressions, I do a “second look” review rather than rewriting the original.

If anything unifies this book, it is passion. The key is that its writers (and editors!) are passionate about what they love and about what they don’t. Charles Aaron’s essay on a failed performance by Hole, for example, describes the alluring car crash that is the widowed Courtney Love in such graphic detail that one yearns to have been there. That’s the power of great writing. Yet nowhere is passion so frontloaded as in the “Cultural Criticism” chapter, where one encounters a chunk of the 33 1/3 bestseller Let’s Talk About Love. Carl Wilson’s paean to Céline Dion is essential reading for anyone wanting to get into the business. To that end, the editors have kindly included a proposal section for those wanting to pitch book ideas during the publisher’s much-anticipated open calls.

In the end, one must remember that this book is geared toward writers of rock music. That said, its lessons will be enlightening for a classical and jazz critic such as myself. Whereas albums in those genres are somehow more immediate, popular albums require a longer period of gestation than I am used to. How to Write About Music, for its part, contains a technical analysis by Owen Pallett of Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” an insightful disclosure of technique as politic that revels in thick description. Such are the kinds of inner workings that only intimate knowledge can elucidate.

Hence a final point of continuity these writers touch upon but don’t feel the need to explicitly state: integrity applies not only to those who write music, but also to those who write about it. The eureka factor comes in being honest about one’s feels. For example, in his scrumptious piece on J Dilla’s Donuts, excerpted from the 33 1/3 volume of the same name, Jordan Ferguson describes the album as “really weird.” It’s not a phrase that would hold up in any academic court of law, but which nevertheless pulses with life. It is an unfiltered reaction, a bottle of good old tap water in a world of purified substitutes. Sometimes, one needs to drink directly from the faucet.

Paul Griffiths: let me tell you

Paul Griffiths
let me tell you
Hastings, East Sussex: Reality Street Editions, 2008

She is like the rest of us; we all have no more than the words that come to us in the play. We go on with these words. We have to.

So the king prefaces let me tell you, an ode to Ophelia, whose limited vocabulary as Shakespeare allots her in Hamlet—481 distinct words—forms the toolkit for Paul Griffiths’s autobiographical exercise. Avid ECM listeners will have caught a glimpse of this language via there is still time, wherein his own recitations of similarly restricted poetry are the moon to cellist Frances-Marie Uitti’s sun and prove that the conceit is not a restriction at all, but rather a microscope’s mirror throwing light on that which might otherwise be left to inference. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius, are the main specimens on her slide, and Shakespeare himself the dye that imparts context.

The story begins with a concession to concessions. Ophelia speaks, and speaks of speaking. Her call to speech is musical: like music, an act in the fullest sense, moving to rhythm of grass and herb.

This is like being one of my own observers, but with no powers over what is observed.

She remembers her birth, but muses upon the art of memory as gift bestown over keep earned. She sees, or rather hears, her father in the cadence of his anticipation, connecting sole to stone as amniotic darkness readies itself to break light around her.

False memory may speak, I find, as well as true. I have to know the difference.

The sounds are immaterial, as true in origin as lies. Father’s feet fade into alliteration, his face alive with death. As it is, we come to realize that it is not her birth after all, but her brother’s—pulled from in to out by the dimples of Achilles. The maid sings of tears and roses, equates tears and roses with glass, and frets them to the consistency of wet paper. The maid sounds herself only through singing. Otherwise,

She would look down at us and say nothing—say nothing but look and look, harsh with love.

The face as medium: it knows of love beyond the bounds of her charge, carries it through the yeast of her other half, percolating through the dough of secret passion until it crackles like a finely browned crust that all but burns eager hands. She is a character of vocal shadows. The young siblings take this challenge as a game, and spin from it a fiber they can only hope will survive the distance she puts between herself and them as she follows her nose to a kitchen beyond the mountain.

The flowers come and go, but leave a trail of their scent. With the mark of a pansy, the pollen and blood of it smeared across the hands, it changes from solid to liquid in the blink of a written eye. The iris materializes on her arm, a curiosity in relief, a sisterly longing temporarily branded.

And there is the sun, and there is the mountain: all where we are is in an ecstasy of expectation.

From this fragile experience, the winds of which linger in curls from a photo tinter’s brush, she knows the value of intimacy within bounds, the buzz of the almost-was. And in fact, beauty is never an indulgence here. It flits in and out of touch, floats in musings on music, and comports itself loosely in the presence of bodies and minds.

Here all is still, still as night. We do not have the joy of music.

Thus the melody of language, inherent as crickets to midnight, also reveals a dream: the wish for something to give up, for the choice to do so. The father looms, bearded but not, lavishing brother and sister with warm breath. In them pools reflect the stories of his travels, and they too tremble and distort those memories with every telling. Words come verily, jumping gaps shallow and deep. It is the battler’s tale, wrapped in water and set adrift, farther to sea than any memory might have been.

Here is an Ophelia whose childhood resembles a stained glass window. Each section is its own color. Some are uniform and almost transparent, others milky and swirled, but they cohere at once-molten boundaries. Anxieties surround the maid who spent so much of her time with the siblings. Her absence is fraught. She is home, lost to the whim of another relationship in an empty life. But the maid returns with something dour, her actions choreographed to royal step. In them are mirrors for the end-aware glance of a sick girl.

But do I long for death and not know it? Is this what my words tell me?

A play within a play, performance at Polonius’s beck and call. Behind its curtain stretches the actor of death, the rise and fall of death. Ophelia questions her remembrance of the stage, but in the asking answers the conundrum that is the root of her. She knows quietude equals harmony.

The after reads into the before. This she admits. Drawing a name from the play and the fortress, she twists a mock fiber of reality from the shavings of fiction and holds to her bosom the flowers that will end her.

We discover her need for flowers, a trip over the mountain by a path startlingly seen. She meets the maid’s daughter, whose animosities are at once vague and clear. This daughter becomes an anti-Ophelia, a mirror-Ophelia, an other-Ophelia in one. She glares and resists, pushes the girl into our capture, from which the only escape is a dip.

It’s cold. My eyes weep.

Those same eyes see profundity incarnate, wrapped in glass and splashed through the atlas of openness that is her heart. A visitation, a spark and a candle, fearful and awed. Her memory unfolds one morpheme at a time, a hand-game shielded by paper pyramids and children’s scrawl. Her memory looks back to the shadows. It pulls the oxcart of the present, heavier with distance and jangling with a litany of bells.

She grows into an awareness that constricts her, even as it opens those eyes beyond where light may reach. Hers is the desire for visions and valences. The unkempt window, cobwebbed and secure, frames it all in quadrants. Music waits like fatality, a game played only once and which leaves a trail of mimics until the temptation to lose overcomes. Strategies are windows of a different sort. They facilitate emotional insight, forming bonds that would never have been without competition.

With music, thank God, you cannot speak.

Behind the façade of affection beats the drum of fate, and Laertes follows his along a divergent path. This, Ophelia would seem to know—if not then, then ever more. She was the one who let go of his hand, that it might transcend the arras of his brokenness. It is written on her skin.

I wish he had been well more of the time, says Ophelia of her father, whose letters adhere to her. She remembers the words as if they were her own (as of course they are). Not only are his eyes weak, but also his denials. Yet she remembers his time in uniform during a time that was not uniform. Since then his speech has become his synecdoche. I do not know what I would do without him.

Her mother: the italicized she. Notorious indifference and depravity of the one who neither listens nor reads, yet has no compunctions in letting the children know what goes on in her chambers. Mother shares these details, imposes them upon daughter, to ensure that power and separation are one and the same. And the suitors don’t stop there. They have eyes for the younger.

She had made it so that I could not believe my own memory.

Sharing is a double-edged blade: one side run with the blood of the unavoidable turn, the other licked clean by bedroom trysts. She must hide these things. Her father cannot know, though his eyes implore. In his absence, mother calls her close and opens the floodgates of illogic. The vessel of that deluge is as quiet as her motive, and sands away the grit of intangible things.

She was a length of hell.

But then she is gone. The sister bids good riddance. The brother inquires.

Hamlet appears pronominally, as nature and nurture wrapped into one. His presence has long since faded, though abstractly it flickers in and out of sense. Ophelia fishes his limpid brain, but comes up short every time. Into her chamber the boy steals and, along with her brother, ganders what he cannot ever have. There is a lack of affection in Hamlet’s past that speaks to the dwindling nature of her own. The cloak of yearning frays at last when Hamlet takes an education. Words hang from his tongue like raindrops at the tips of leaves.

Without music it means nothing. Without music it could make me fear.

Polonius wanders into the background, but ties a string to Ophelia’s finger ere exeunt. In light of this, she hopes the hearts of both men will see her silhouette and marvel. And when the young man swoons as if in the plays he attends, she closes the light around herself and wonders what brought her here.

The play is not still: it becomes something.

She is aware of the theater. Loves the theater, insofar as she knows her lines. And so we jump into a mise-en-abyme…only it’s not, for we have the ending already in grasp. The trio—father and children—takes a comedic bow.

Praying to a God she knows to be absent, she supplicates a mountain away from the kingdom, calculates in her heart the mathematics of foretelling. How can she not doubt the music of life, when all it amounts to is silence?

Now there is no eye on us, and the night goes on without end.

Yet silence can be an act of kindness, of a love so deep it cannot be defined—as when Laertes throws himself into manhood at the arm of a pretty young thing or two. Unlike their mother, he locks his tingling away from the girl, who wonders still about what is over. When she confronts him on it, the answer is morbid, final.

There is a change in the brother. His person shines.

In this erotic turn, speech becomes excitement, contact, and self-realization.

In my heart as in yours there is no doubt:
What reason then, my love, not to come out?

A letter to the curtain, behind which the body thrums. A time when mouths open—not to speak but to sing.
Sun burns away the flesh of pretense, leaving skeletons of passion to rest on the hills. Glass weeps with light.
there is no difference for me.
The difference is love: they make the night as the night makes them. Togetherness blossoms like those pansies by the path, now overgrown beyond recognition. The weeds are quills in the playwright’s hand, flung one after another until the inkwell runs dry. The hand will open, say nothing, and drop. It cracks a door to tragedy.

Last night I made up my mind: I must go.

The young lord has left her to the darkness. Death is no longer the correct term. If only there was remembrance to tell her father and brother what they cannot know, they might respond. Their tears will tell enough.

Ophelia in the castle, hands on knotted ore, seeks the king and in him lays the infant of her choice.

There’ll be no remembrance of you here. It will be as if you had never been. The effect of O.

“O” is all that I am. Through the portal, a ring on a finger left in the forge’s keep. The knob turns at my touch. For as long as the snow powders the earth like the face of another, I will linger here, a trace and a scent. If crowds should gather and resurrect me a million times, only to throw me and my vocabulary into the abyss of plot development, so be it. I have said my piece, and the piece has said me.

If there is anything to be found in these images, it is a version of ourselves. The pathos of life is clearest when the means are limited. They express changes in light. The text begins to take on an anatomy: shoulders, hearts, tongues, and arms all fit together in changing combinations. Quotidian essentials like food and children’s games become a linguistic game to best capture the essence of nonexistent fare. Words become names, and names objects. The color green is at once generative, sinful, and divine.

To be sure, these parameters are fascinating but in the end imply something greater than the sum, if not also the subtraction, of their parts. Just as we can forever impose shapes on the water vapor we call “cloud,” also infinite is the potential of the graph we call “letter.”

By the time we have read this Ophelia, she has already read us.

(Paul Griffiths is a music writer, novelist, poet, and librettist whose liner notes can often be found gracing ECM New Series booklets. To read excerpts from let me tell you, click here.)

A Digital Workflow for Classical Music and Opera: eBook review

“In the digital world, portability is everything,” writes David Wank in the introduction to his latest eBook, A Digital Workflow for Classical Music and Opera. I’ve been following David’s informative blog, Classical Weekly, for some months now and was fortunate enough to receive a review copy from him of said eBook. Being a full-time grad student, portability is indeed music to my ears. As regular readers of this blog may know, I do most of my reviewing on the go, listening to albums daily on my iPod while dictating my thoughts and impressions into a digital voice recorder. These I transcribe later and polish as time allows into the finished posts you see here on between sound and space.

For this reason and more, having a clear and accessible archive of my music collection is key. For popular music, this has rarely been a problem. With the exception of compilations, CDs imported into iTunes are easily designated under band names, song titles, and genres. When importing and archiving classical CDs, however, things sometimes get tricky. Should I archive by composer name or performer? If the latter, which performer? Conductor, soloist, ensemble, or orchestra? How will I be able to access exactly the piece I am looking for without confusion? What if two or more composers or performer configurations are represented on the same album? Such are the questions confronting the classical archivist, and this eBook provides cogent and practical advice on how to negotiate these and more. I have worked my way around such issues through much trial and error over the years. I only wish I’d had something like David’s methods on hand from day one.

Most classical enthusiasts will tell you that, outside of attending live performances of course, CDs offer the best listening experience, and neither David nor I would contest this. But in our increasingly hectic culture we tend to do much of our listening through headphones and car speakers. In addition, CDs are not permanent resources. Regardless of how well one cares for them, accidents can and do happen, and with the technology widely available to the common consumer to create digital archives, there’s no reason why one shouldn’t take advantage. That being said, this book is less about meta-tagging (I, for example, have all of my 1000+ ECM albums archived in iTunes under the genre “ECM” rather than as jazz, classical, world, fusion, folk, etc.) and more about the creation and organization of a high-fidelity classical and opera library at near-CD quality without compromising too much in the way of valuable hard drive space. Still, there is plenty of tagging advice sprinkled throughout that will be of use to anyone.

Computer knowledge requirements are minimal: if you can create, rename, and move folders, you’re golden, and for those still intimidated David offers 30-day personalized support to all purchasers of the eBook. And while the methods outlined therein are geared toward iTunes and iPod users, one can certainly use any preferred combination of player and management software.

David’s process involves three basic steps: 1) ripping the original CDs as high-quality files and importing these into a designated holding directory, 2) editing the filenames and folders as needed, and 3) moving the finished archive into iTunes. While Step 1 will require (free) external software, there is in this Third Edition an iTunes-only workflow which can be performed entirely “in house.” While the latter option, even at 320kBit/s, will not give you quite the same quality, it will save a step or two. As someone who has ripped all of his CDs over the years for archiving purposes, I found this method to be the most applicable.

One cannot simply follow my summation above, however, and expect stellar results. The key is in David’s well-thought-out subtleties and ease of explanation. David has clearly spent countless hours refining his process and the eBook is an ideal tool for those whose audio collections seem to grow, like mine, of their own accord. He walks you through the steps of working with the appropriate third-party software, getting the most out of your tagging and folder options, and working with either pre-existing or to-be-ripped archives.

I feel obligated to reiterate his advice about backing up everything before attempting such a feat of organization. This is a tedious and time-consuming process that, in the rare instance of a skipped step or two, can backfire, but if followed to the letter the results will be more than worth the effort.

You may purchase a copy of David’s eBook here for $5.95.