Saturday, May 27, 2006

under stratus

While you painted bookshelves, the windows sent in white.

I went to get some cash, and then went round the shelves, the place was teeming, I queued, then I stood in another queue to get a lottery ticket, then we queued for petrol on the sliproad, then I queued to pay. Need more cash soon, I thought.

Chains lay still and folded on the earth, except you hung them up to take a look and then binned them and took the bins along to the bigger bins.

a jazz-junk scorcher, wrestling diva, after-shave

We think there are more bills to pay, but we don't pay them. We don't write it down, but it's An International Style.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

lyrical effusions on Scriabin's preludes...

C major is just a point on a continuum. Here are the major keys, the ones with the most flats at the beginning and the ones with the most sharps at the end...

G flat major (6 flats)
D flat major (5 flats)
A flat major (4 flats)
E flat major (3 flats)
B flat major (2 flats)
F major (1 flat)
C major (no sharps or flats)
G major (1 sharp)
D major (2 sharps)
A major (3 sharps)
E major(4 sharps)
B major (5 sharps)
F sharp major (6 sharps)

In the 24-prelude-form of Chopin, Scriabin, Shostakovich, etc, you actually start with Prelude 1 in C major, then Prelude 2 in the relative minor (A minor in this case), then Prelude 3 move to the dominant of the preceding major (G), then Prelude 4 to its relative minor (E minor), and so on. You are moving regularly sharpwards all the time. But at the point (the thirteenth Prelude) when you ought by rights to get to F sharp major the composer switches to G flat (which on a piano is exactly the same thing) and then rides home on the flat keys, to end, finally, with the 24th Prelude in D minor.

This midway switch from sharps to flats isn't very satisfactory in theory because you can't really loop the loop like that. You really ought to carry on as you were. After all, the key sequence could be continued infinitely in either direction.
For instance, the dominant of F sharp major is C sharp major, which has seven sharps. The dominant of C sharp major is G sharp major with eight sharps. How do you get eight sharps when there are only seven notes in the scale? Because then you get into the realms of double sharps. In this case G sharp major includes the note F double-sharp (which is played on a piano as the white note more commonly known as G). If you carry on repeatedly modulating to the dominant then the key progression goes like this:

F sharp major (six sharps)
C sharp major (seven sharps)
G sharp major (eight sharps, the new note is F double-sharp)
D sharp major (nine sharps, the new note is C double-sharp)
A sharp major (ten sharps, the new note is G double-sharp)
E sharp major (eleven sharps, the new note is D double-sharp)
B sharp major (twelve sharps, the new note is A double-sharp)
F double-sharp major (thirteen sharps, the new note is E double-sharp)
C double-sharp major (fourteen sharps, the new note is B double-sharp)
G double-sharp major (fifteen sharps, the new note is F treble-sharp)

and so on....

It may all be only 24 keys (major and minor) on the piano, but in reality these keys extend forever. No, not in our reality. Who ever heard of such monstrous modulation? It's true that a composer occasionally ends up trespassing into one of these strange keys (Janaček is notorious) and he does it for excellent reasons, you do not suddenly switch from sharp notation to flat notation, not even in piano music, and if you are moving through dominants and end up modulating to G sharp major, then that's how it is, and to suddenly switch to flat notation would actually be more difficult for the performer as well as conveying a false idea of the underlying relationship.

If you glance down the left-hand side of those lists of keys you'll notice the following repeated sequence of letters: CGDAEBF. And it's just the same with minor keys.

(in the sharp keys you get to the dominant by acquiring a sharp, while in the flat keys you get to it by giving up a flat...)

"Flats" and "sharps" and the names of notes are completely arbitrary terms; for example in other European languages the notes are not named by letters of the alphabet. Even the actual pitch is not a fixed thing, Mozart's note C was a good deal lower than our note C. The only thing that isn't arbitrary is the mathematical pattern. And yet even this is culturally bound because key-modulation plays no great part in most of the world's music, and in post-classical western popular music is minimal or rudimentary, while in post-classical western art music it is now conceived as one style among many, moreover one with particular antique resonances. We are talking about a false stasis, Bach to Shostakovich and out. It was a moment. Everything moves on.

This Prelude form is a dead letter. [You might say it already became so when Debussy, though retaining the number 24 in his two books of preludes, abandoned the scheme of keys.] It is therefore merely cranky and amateur to raise some objections, but personally though I do love these sets of Preludes there is one thing in them I find cloying, especially if the performer leaves very short gaps between each Prelude, which they usually do. It's the repetitive nature of the key transitions from one prelude to the next. Every single minor Prelude comes to us preceded by a piece in the relative major. Every single major prelude (except the first) comes to us preceded by a piece in the relative minor of the subdominant.

When I compose my 24 preludes (in imaginary Crankland) they will be the worst in the world, except in one sole respect - every single one of my 23 transitions will involve a different kind of key relationship - not just dominants and relative minors, but the relative minor of the submediant and remoter leaps too. So here's a puzzle: - can you work out a sequence that achieves this using each of the 24 (major and minor) keys once and only once? And can you do the same thing for a set of twelve preludes in the major keys alone?


(3 days later...)

There is one solution of a quite methodical kind. You begin with a zero point (C major for example) and if you keep leaping back and forth across it, steadily widening the interval each time, you end up with a key sequence where all the modulations are different: C, B, D flat, B flat, D, A, E flat, A flat, E, G, F, G flat. This would work as the pattern for twelve preludes, irrespective of whether the keys are major or minor or anything else.

A workable sequence involving all 24 major and minor keys is possible by doubling the above sequence. I can’t see a way, however, to consistently alternate major and minor as in the traditional sequence – but isn’t this better in any case?

1. C major
2. B minor (implying transition through G)
3. D flat major (remote)
4. B flat minor (to relative minor)
5. D major (remote)
6. A major (to dominant – majors)
7. E flat minor (remote – tritone shift, major to minor)
8. G sharp minor (to subdominant – minors – considered as A flat minor)
9. E major (to relative major of subdominant)
10. G minor (remote)
11. F major (to relative major of dominant)
12. F sharp minor (remote – sharing a third on A)
13. C minor (remote – tritone shift, minor to minor)
14. B major (remote – sharing a third on E flat/D sharp)
15. C sharp minor (to relative minor of subdominant)
16. B flat major (remote)
17. D minor (to relative minor of dominant)
18. A minor (to dominant – minors)
19. E flat major (remote – tritone shift, minor to major)
20. A flat major (to subdominant – majors)
21. E minor (remote)
22. G major (to relative major)
23. F minor (remote)
24. G flat major (implying transition through D flat)

You might also be interested in this post.

Friday, May 12, 2006

in a meadow

It's the time for meadow foxtail and other early grasses: sweet vernal grass, soft brome. The meadow trembles between death and life - the stony relics of winter, the first few bubbles in the pan. The eye is still starved, but only while it's diving.

Meadow foxtail is a beautiful grass and livestock love to graze it. It becomes linked in the mind with meadow buttercup, its invariable comrade. The flower-heads are very variable, like fat fuzzy bees. When the anthers appear (Alopecurus is protogynous, the stigmas are exserted first) they can be any colour from purple to a dazzling lemon yellow.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Interpretation of Dreams


    The wery hunter sleping in his bedde
    To woode againe his mind goeth anoon
    The judge dremeth how his plees ben spedde
    The cartere dremeth how his cartes goon
    The ryche of golde the knyghte fightes with his foon
    The sicke mette he drynketh of the tonne
    The lovere mette he hath hys ladye wonne

The wonderful train of thought that is embodied in The Interpretation of Dreams begins from understanding that previous and popular theories of dreams lack an explanatory dimension. Dreams, Freud thought, must be functional and must have a motive. Hence the conception (which required rather special definition) that a dream fulfils a wish.

On the other hand Chaucer's observation was undeniable. The contents of a person's dreams, a lot of the contents anyway, were readily recognizable components of the dreamer's everyday life. Freud intuited that the dream-maker seized on these materials not because they were important but because they were readily available. (If you work on the tills, you don't, in other words, have a motive for dreaming about till-work, but you dream about it anyway.) Thus, they were part of the "dream-work" but they were specifically NOT part of the wish. Freud developed this into a principle: the readily available materials were in fact virtually always taken not from some vast trawl over the whole breadth of the dreamer's mind but simply from what lay uppermost, which was - almost invariably - the memories of the past day. If the dream contained someone you hadn't thought about "for years", a little inspection nearly always revealed that you had, in fact, been reminded of them by some petty episode of the day before. That this is always at first denied and always as openly admitted once it's seen, is itself impressive testimony to the incessant activities of our internal censor. What we assert as true is in fact subject to a level of internal air-brushing, insufficient to cause us serious disability in the struggle for existence (knowing what's true is, after all, important), but sufficient to improve our general sense of well-being and complacency. Which is exactly what Darwin would predict: the mind is subject to evolutionary optimization just as much as the rest of our body.

The first element in interpreting your own dreams Freudianly is, therefore, to identify the aspects of the dream that arise from some occasion of the day before - something that happened or something you were thinking about - and lay them on one side. In the rest of the dream lies the wish. The wish being commonly a desire that is so pressing precisely because the dreamer is too ashamed to admit it, the dream hides it from the dreamer, for example by changing the characters. My experience is that once you have thoroughly grasped the mechanisms by which a dream comes into existence it's remarkably easy to discover by self-inspection what your own dreams are really about.

If someone tells you "you were in my dream last night", then it's a safe bet that, whoever else that dream was about, it was definitely not about you. And if you think about the tone in which these words are habitually said, this makes sense - the dreamer is light, gallant, unworried, relaxed, and as pleasantly surprised as yourself that he should have paid you the compliment of dreaming about you. No-one ever dreams about you when their mind is really set on you; then, their turmoiled dreams are all about other things altogether. Or rather, they seem to be.

Anyhow, that's my tribute to Freud for his 150th. The Interpretation of Dreams is the discovery of an entirely new mode of thinking.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

power cut

Grandmother lit one candle from another. The flames winked and cast a glow in her sitting-room, but they seemed very dim and yellow compared to the homely light of before. She lit another candle and carried it out into the narrow hall. She moved some ornaments and set it down on a shelf opposite the clock. Finally she went back down the step to the kitchen (it was growing darker all the time), and lit another candle to take upstairs.

The steady tocking of the hall clock seemed louder. I sat by the fire but we were going to let it go out. We decided to have an early night because of the strike. I gathered up my marbles thinking they could easily get lost under the couch. One by one I dropped them into the net bag. Then I prodded the ends through the clip and pulled on it to make sure it was fast on the teeth. If you didn’t do that it could sometimes slip through the clip and that made all the marbles roll out. Then I slid the cover over the clip, gave it another pull for luck and put it away in the toy-box. Then I opened my big book from the library. Kriemhild’s warriors were setting off for Hungary. Though he said nothing on this particular page, my eye kept sliding back to Hagen’s fierce, forked beard. It was nearly too dark to read, and his beard had lost its red colour, but I still found him interesting to look at.

Grandmother tidied the crocheted shawl and went back into the kitchen. She didn’t have to watch the milk because she had a glass disk that she put in the pan. When the milk boiled this stopped it boiling over. The glass disk clunked up and down and this sound told you when the milk was ready. I heard her moving around in the shadows and then the chink of cups. For a moment I envisaged the Sweet Tin on top of the kitchen cupboard; this was the most interesting thing in the kitchen, and at the moment it contained liquorice sweets.

She came carrying the tray with the cups of coffee and garibaldi biscuits. She came up the step very carefully and set the tray down on the low table. She settled down on the sofa and I scrambled up beside her. “What a nuisance!” she was saying. “I do wish those dratted men would leave us alone.” I couldn’t understand it either. I imagined them rushing around the country plunging it into darkness. “They must be very greedy,” I said. I imagined them swooping like Kriemhild’s warriors, silently riding up and down the National Grid and extinguishing it with their swirling cloaks.

The coffee was piping hot but I sipped it so it didn't get a skin on it. Then I was allowed another biscuit. Grandmother didn’t have to worry about crumbs because the Garibaldi biscuit was chewy and nothing broke off except the part that was in your mouth. “You can have your bath tomorrow,” she was saying. “Just brush your teeth tonight.” At Grandmother’s you didn’t have a tube of toothpaste. She had something in a tin called Dentifrice and you scrubbed it with the brush until it went foamy.

I asked if I could have a liquorice sweet before I went to bed. Grandmother thought it over and said it was better not, because we hadn’t had proper dinner. “Just one,” I said. “You can have two tomorrow,” she said, “and I’ll read you a story before we go up.” She brought the candle nearer now we had finished our coffee. I snuggled up beside her and she read me an adventure of Anders and Marta. Then we went up to bed. Grandmother blew out the candles one by one. She brought the last one into my room and set it down on the writing-desk while she tucked me in. Then she kissed me goodnight and went along the landing carrying the candle.

It was completely black outside. There were some spats of rain on the glass. The gulls were crying and squabbling. I thought tomorrow I would play with the cigarette machine. It was a wooden bird. You pushed the bird on a pivot and it reached into a little drawer and pulled out a cigarette in its beak. The drawer had places for six cigarettes but now grandmother only had two left and they were very squashed from the number of times the bird had held them in his beak.


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