Thursday, December 17, 2009

Literary & musical retrospective 2009

The plain summary of this combined retrospective is that things haven't gone too well on either front. The reasons are probably varied, but I'd like to put most of the blame on mental unease. It's hard to appreciate something artistic when the mind isn't willing to pause and pretend there's a world outside. I hope I can figure out how to get past this next year, but polluting this retrospective with such matters seems inappropriate. Let's at least try to have some festivity! (Not too much, though.)

I can tell it hasn't been a great year for my ears by virtue of there being no great albums that gripped me. Well, there was Shiny Beast, but if we are to be totally precise, then that was an album from very late '08. (Still, considering I didn't discuss it last year, we can say that I only realized it was great this year.) Aside from that contentious choice, there were only three very good albums - The Human Menagerie (exotic & mysterious, the best first-listen by far), Odessey & Oracle (at last, and as good as I expected to be), and New York (also at last, and surprisingly cohesive; something that makes me want to use phrases like "adult album-rock"). But aside from this trinity, there was nothing essential; the rest was merely good at best (take The Missing Years, for example). Maybe I've grown spoilt in being accustomed to one great album per year, but in its absence even discovering a few good albums seems not so satisfying.

The most insidious habit that developed this year was an inability to get past the stage of being familiar with an album to one of fully grasping it ("understanding it", as I sometimes say). I once used to stall at listen zero or one - I'd either be unable to muster the enthusiasm needed for a first listen, or would be too disappointed after one listen to proceed any further. Now I seem unable to muster the enthusiasm for the final push in listening to an album, where one obtains confidence about what it's all about, and which side of the quality scale it falls on. At the same time, my rate of purchase hasn't really suffered despite the lack of listening, meaning I'm in a situation similar to a few years ago, where I've purchased something and seemingly immediately lost interest in it. I'm still excited at the prospect of finding an album for cheap, which I think means I'd eventually like to sit down and listen to the music. But that "eventually" hasn't really struck yet.

To answer a question I asked last year, was there any book that matched the might of Bokonon (Cat's Cradle)? Somewhat sadly, no. That book seems like it was read an eternity ago, and it is downright shameful to think that there has been so little after that. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was excellent, but that also seems like it was from another year, because things were so sparse after that. I did enjoy more Auster at some point in the year - Leviathan is probably my second favourite after the trilogy - but to be honest, I had grand plans for discovering another great author this year, and so reaffirming my appreciation for him wasn't as thrilling as I would've liked. There's a delicate balance between exploring someone you know you like in considerable depth versus taking a chance on someone completely new. One can make a case for either strategy, or a combination. But having none of each seems less excusable.

Predictions for next year? Preferences for next year? After this year, anything will do.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

But don't forget the songs / That made you cry /And the songs that saved your life;
Yes, you're older now / And you're a clever swine / But they were the only ones who ever stood by you

When one starts quoting Morrissey, it becomes something of a habit, you see. Seeing him in person made me reflect on the sentiment in the above lines. It'd be a stretch to say Morrissey saved me, but the music did help immensely in me trying to discover my emotional center. I still find myself incredulous that someone released music that helped contextualize a particular class of existentially dissatisfied people (or misfits, if you prefer). The many criticisms of Morrissey aside, some of them quite valid, the underlying humanity and empathy I sense in his music seems as strong as ever. I feel lucky to have such deep roots to his music, and hearing them performed made me marvel at the enigma that is popular song (in particular, I was thinking about Xgau's proclamation about it being the greatest of all the arts, and while I was in the moment, anyway, it seemed so true). I don't know if I will ever understand what makes this kind of music so pleasurable, but if I find myself straying in years to come, I have faith that I'll take Morrissey's advice and not forget what it has done for me. Among other things, it has given me hope, as rare a commodity as any.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

How is art created? How are love songs written? My experience suggests they are partly wishes of the way things ought to be.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Good lord, at moments my existence terrifies me. Some of the things I do surely go against the fundamental principles of being human. I cannot do better than quote the classic Berryman line: There ought to be a law against Henry.

(How's that for a retro number? 2004 is alive and kickin'!)
Shyness is nice / And shyness can stop you / From doing all the things in life / You'd like to.

While I feared that it would turn out this way, I always had some hope that my quarter-century would find me in slightly better shape than I am now. Somewhat like the narrator of The Wrong Boy, I feel like it's wrong to have to resort to Morrissey lines at this age: or, being more specific, early Smiths lines seem wrong, as I'd much rather be in the "Break Up The Family" stage. As such, the entire matter is like a bad dream that just won't go away. (I'm tempted to add in more Moz here, but it's probably better if I resist.)

It's almost pointless to trace the origins of that which makes me son and heir of a criminally vulgar personality trait; it'd be instructive, sure, but I suspect that the situation now is more due to it being comfortable than anything else. I can't really explain what happened today, but with my red-letter day coming up shortly, it's especially frustrating that there's been yet another event avoided due to...what, exactly? Perceived lack of company? Ridiculous, really.

I can only hope I am given more opportunities, undeserving as I am. Resolutions seem frivolous by nature, so I won't try to formalize anything in that setting, but still: I should try to curb this excessive shyness. It's unlikely that the awkwardness during an event will be any worse than the feeling of sitting by oneself and dissecting it. Lack of company, now that's tautologically the situation I end up in when I make such choices.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The way I interact with people seems to be all about context. I seem to subconsciously decide what mode a particular situation requires, and act accordingly. My best and worst interactions, roughly speaking, involve the two extremes in terms of number of people involved. The best I think is the one-on-one*, where I tend to speak freely in a manner that is most reflective of the "real" me. The worst seems to be the existence of a group, where I think it must be a lack of confidence that makes me hesitant to speak at all. This is understandable, but really needs to change to some degree. There's no point talking about art serving as a crutch and how bad that is but then not doing anything about it. People close to me perhaps correctly sense that my hypersensitivity means that there are certain criticisms that I'll likely take badly. But I think I would greatly benefit from someone trying to guide me away from dangerous states of social stagnation. Till there's a person who can fill that role, I suppose I'll have to rely on stern blog posts.

* I hope you weren't concerned that I was going to say the best was when I'm by myself! Egotism only goes so far, you know.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's frustrating that experiences are inherently one-way; I feel that by probing the aether, summoning it to answer all my questions about your life, I ought to be entitled to have you do the same. This is an oddity, one I don't believe the cliches address. When the heavens part and you see a sunlit figure in the distance, what happens when they don't notice you?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reflecting on some of my recent work, I wonder if I've fooled myself. It's quite possible that I'm not significantly more mature than a few years ago, or at least, not to the extent that I wish. The big difference is that I have a larger arsenal at my disposal to express my thoughts, and so it's easier to dress up emotions. Which brings us back to art-as-a-crutch, funnily enough. That's my observation for the day: no point dwelling on it, because we can't will ourselves to turn mature overnight.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I'm usually happy to chug along listening to whatever album catches my attention. Sometimes though, when the album isn't particularly spectacular, I take pause and wonder if anyone on earth has put as much effort as me into the music in question. There's the worry of time being wasted, for one; I start wondering if there are other things to do besides yielding three-fourths of an hour to something I don't feel a strong affinity towards. Of course, one can't know beforehand if something is going to be above average, because no matter how much background reading you do, there's no accounting for emotional reaction. It leaves me mildly suspicious of people who claim to be consistently discovering great albums: is it just that they have different standards? Or is there some trick to sussing out mediocrity that I've yet to discover?

My suspicion is that the "fault" lies with my ol' principle of listening to albums straight through, even when there are empirical signs suggesting it isn't a wise course. I can imagine that it's significantly simpler to get the feeling for mediocrity through a random sampling - while you still "waste" time listening to the tracks, at least you spread your bets out. The downside is that you leave to chance the possibility that there's some great (or even just good) that you miss out on. Then again, it leaves more time to focus on things that reward close attention. That seems like as laudable an end as any, but there is also a joy in really understanding an artist through their albums. There are quite a few albums that I recall fondly because they teach me something about the person behind them. When I perceive that they have similar traits to me, that creates a stronger emotional connection to the music. Is this empathetic connection "better" than that created purely through the music? Of course not, but it's not apparent to me that the converse is true either.

Sigh, so that means there's no definitive answer, as I suspected: it's all a question of choosing the trade-off one is comfortable with. Another spin of Set the Twilight Reeling, then? (I feel bad calling it mediocre, but I can definitely say it's disappointing. And I've got statistics, I've got facts to prove that basically no one has heard the darn thing.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jackie Wilson said

No pragmatism here, for sure. But sometimes I can only faithfully report what certain moods and thoughts whisper to me. (The messenger defense, you understand.)

The angels drew a hundred stars,
Made them glitter and glow
And scattered them across the night.
I wasn't tempted;
After the heaven of your smile,
The one above seemed less bright.
I somehow ended up with a dose of pragmatism here, which makes me mildly impressed with myself.

When you smile
I am changed,
The only one living
No longer.

Don't love me
If you prefer,
But consider growing
A little fonder.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I used to think it was a great thing that computers and the internet make it effortless to keep every scrap of our lives intact, retrievable five, ten, fifteen years on (2012 notwithstanding). There is undoubtedly a pleasure in reading something I wrote five years ago, because I can almost remember my state of my mind. If it's something good, I can pat myself on the back for being so good for my age (!), if not I can marvel at my progression since (whoever said I was pessimistic?). And heck, I always need to remind myself that life is continuous, and it's as good a way as any. But it's sometimes not what you want, in that it's proof that things were a particular way. The occasional faults of memory at least used to leave open the possibility that things were misremembered, that because of our inability to recollect and remember everything, maybe, just maybe, things were the way we would like them to be. But now you can dig through the archives and be presented with cold, unarguable truth. Reassuring when that's what you want, depressing when it isn't.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A common question when listening to some particularly bad piece of music is, "What were they thinking?!". In many cases there are reasonable explanations - the lure of money, too many drugs, and the like - but sometimes it's just the result of a perfectly natural artistic slump. Then one wonders if the artist knew they were in a slump at the time, just because it seems so evident to us. I'm starting to appreciate that it's not so simple to be a judge of one's work. I can determine my outright insipid writing (none of which get published as a post, naturally), but sometimes it is hard to figure out if something is deep or trivial. I especially get worried about rhymes being too simplistic. (It doesn't help that I sometimes raise my eyebrows even at an Auden couplet - I invariably like them all, but wonder if I'm not being critical enough.) So it goes with this one, which you could probably accuse of being callow, but hey, it feels earnest enough. How it comes across to the world at large, though, I have no idea.

The soft music of chance
That's what I hear
Every time our eyes meet;
Would that I know it some day
Because each time you look away
All I can hear is defeat.

Monday, October 26, 2009

When I say I don't know if many people share my way of thinking, one of the things I mean is that I seem to find a particularly strong consolation from art, where normal men find befuddlement (and sometimes insincerity). As much as I would like to call that "being artistic", I'm definitely without the talent the phrase implies; so something better is needed. (Weird is always a good choice, but too flippant.) Whatever the appropriate word, I wonder (as is my wont) why this is so - why do I seem unusually entranced by the artistic realm? Honestly, I don't know if I use art as a tool to self-awareness, or just as a crutch; probably both, as it goes with most things, but in what proportions? One creeping fear is that I compensate for personal deficiencies through excessive adulation of the distillation of (other people's) experiences. It might be true to some extent. But I still like to think that precisely because it tries to capture the essence of things, art is one of the keys to unlocking the mystery of it all. Rest assured though, having given out the advice of not letting art come before life, I am on my guard to make sure I don't fall into the same trap. Appreciating art for speaking truths is one thing, but sometimes it only has meaning if the truth is then enacted in our own lives.
I know that suggesting that these things should be taken humourously is asking for a lot, but it's true in this case (I think?). If you like, though, consider it another of those mind-projections, relieving the consciousness of the strain of having to process such thoughts continually.

I open my eyes in the morning -
I see,
She has quit my life;
So I ask:
Should I follow suit?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lines from Keats & Yeats, Bukowski & Berryman (do the two pairs share any analogies?) are floating in my head. It is the sort of day where I feel like taking a leaf out of one of their books; namely, shutting the blinds and reading from all of their books, committing to memory everything that possesses that intangible beauty that is synonymous with the form. What makes these brief arrangements of words (rhyming or not) so addictive, I'll never know. I would like to say it help me understands life, but one can never be sure. I can certainly say it makes the journey far more bearable - it is almost as if the mere act of reading a powerful line gives one access to a secret incantation, known only to a few, one which can be used in times of duress to keep at bay the ever-present madness that beckons, and to guide our feet away from the void that surrounds.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

As I was plodding through the contents of the last post, the phrase "artistic suffering" popped into my head and seemed a natural fit in the context of things. Thinking about this a bit more has prompted the following question. Given the choice, would I forsake this streak of mine, the aspiration to create art out of experience (suffering and joy alike), if it meant actually getting what I want? That is, would I be satisfied with being happy and content if it meant being normal? (I should clarify that writing long pieces about a moment in a time probably crosses most people's definitions of the normalcy line.) Is this artiness the real me, and more darkly, even if it is would I give it up anyway?

A wish is nothing new in the context of human experience, but it is quite sobering to reflect what one would sacrifice for it. At the moment, my answer to the question would have to be no. I don't question the depth of feeling one can have without it, but whatever this spirit of the cosmos that has invaded me is, engaging it has not been without pleasure. This might be an overly defensive stance, I admit, but my personal measure of the value of life cannot exist without some effort to comprehend the universe. The (personally) gilded phrases and sentiments that sometimes arise from my otherwise cloudy writing are entwined with that search. That is not meant to be a slight against normality, but only an explanation of where the strength resides in this one soul trapped on the other side. Without it, I would be nothing. Therefore, having experienced it, I cannot imagine sacrificing it even if it meant satisfying the very things I often lament and wish for.

My answer is far from iron-clad, you understand, but at least it clarifies some of my oddities.

Friday, October 09, 2009

It feels like there's something important here; an idea, or feeling, that I've touched upon before but which seems to be central to the moment described here. Primarily, though? I don't know what the hell is going on. And I can't say that's a place I've been in very often, actually.

And that if memory recur, the sun's
Under eclipse and the day blotted out.

Yeats' words, the conclusion to a stanza that was emblazoned in my mind from the first time I read it. I always liked the beginning of the stanza, because it was so direct in asking one of those fundamental questions of life, one that was locked somewhere within my mind yet was awoken the moment I read the poem. As with music, poetry needs to be revisited to be fully understood, I think. These last lines were certainly powerful when I first read them, but I never fully appreciated how True they were until recently. They now seem less a poignant, poetic turn of phrase than one of those amazing encapsulations of a moment, of a memory, of a feeling. This discovery is one positive to take out of the experience that follows. There are more, so there is a happy outcome after all, you might say. But we will have to encounter sadness along the way.

I was sitting on the grass, generally bored but otherwise content with myself, which in hindsight was the perfect setting for an epiphany; as attested by the great literary tradition, life finds the most unexpected moments to catch up with you. I made an innocuous glance at the horizon and caught a glimpse of her face for a second, maybe less. That moment was a sensation I have rarely experienced: it was a flood of memory, desire, possibility and destiny. (I think; I cannot deny the possibility that it was the worst possible combination of all, sadness & madness, both of which I seem to be prone to!) I have been trying to analyze each of these aspects ever since, because the point of most of my writing (as I see it) is to capture and understand moments. Sometimes I am successful, and mostly I manage to at least convince myself of the meaning of the moment, if it doesn't come across in what I write. This time, though, I'm not even close to figuring out the first thing about it. But let me at least try to analyze the following natural queries: what happened next? And what does it all mean?

The first, possibly disappointing, answer: the followup to my epiphany was fairly predictable. Quite simply, after the second or so spent in shock, I couldn't bear to look any longer, and looked away to try to pretend I didn't care. Whether I was worried that my inner thoughts would be visible to the outside world, I don't know. (Anyway, I needn't have bothered, because I seem to have the gift of infinite suppression, so no one batted an eyelid.) I ended up playing with the grass and waiting for the moment to pass. Which of course it did, blessedly, but if only that were the end of it all. Indeed, should it need explicating, unlike the swathe of people before me, what I related above is all there is to the tale: there is no dash to talk to her, no courtship, and certainly no resolution. But let's hold that thought for the moment, there is more.

To answer why the moment was important, let me first sweep away the naive reading, namely that I was immediately smitten or something of the sort. Ok, maybe a little, but more fundamentally, no. This was deeper. A memory was at the heart of it, and seeing her face was like seeing the past rise up and stare at me accusingly. (I'm reminded of the opening page of Norwegian Wood, where Toru lunges forward in his seat, breathless, unable to deal with the titular song that is playing because of the memory associated.) As I hinted above, though, the moment was double-edged; I said memory and desire, with the latter being fused both with the past and present. Put simply, whatever pain the past (unresolved) desire provoked was equally matched by the wild hope that standing before me was my second chance. One chance itself is something to marvel at; a second, well, that's enough to question whether one is living a dream. I'll admit it, desire is a strong force, especially when it is forged from an epiphany: stronger than hypersensitivity, maybe. So while I might have done nothing at the inception of the moment, when this apparition stood before me, now that time has passed there is a temptation to explore the matter further. What exactly that entails, I don't know, but good lord, do you know how many times this has happened? Twice, maybe, being optimistic. (I told you, this is big!) It's why I wonder if I've lost my mind.

But let's not get carried away. If things don't fall in place, I plan to do nothing. Because, really, what is the argument to pursue such possibly callow feelings as desire? To validate a memory? To explore a road I once turned back on in the past? Such is my condition that it is questions that I ponder, rather than take any action. So in sum, it is just one party (two, if you count the ghost from the past) gliding through life as normal, and the other trying to figure out what one intersecting moment between the two means (if anything). Writing it like that makes it sound sadder than I intend. Clearly it's no cause for celebration, but still there is a certain quiet beauty to the event, is there not? I don't know if it's a strength, but I can internalize such losses and view them at a level of abstraction. You don't have to tell me that life isn't art, of course; but it seems that when the cards are against you, one may as well appreciate whatever is possible. You might think it's masochism to live like this. Sure. At the very least, though, things are not unpleasant for those who I have every reason to believe are fine people. Jilted and unrequited lovers might share similar passions to me, but one must admit that they sometimes hurt the object of their affection. I internalize all that. I don't know where this will leave me, but like the narrator of "Walk Away Renee", I'm not questioning the defeat - I understand, and hold no ill will.

That's hardly an appropriate way to end such a confused piece of writing, I know. I really don't want to give the impression that I'm once again hard-pressed by the world at large - that's so 2004. Whether my problems are imagined or not, self-created or not, I can only hope to draw positives from them. I agree that when expressed in writing, my internalizations might seem absurd, but understand that these are exercises in understanding myself; the absurdity is plain to me too. I assure the concerned reader that I don't value artistic suffering more than life itself. The moment addressed above still has not left me, and there are decisions left to be made, sure. Being the eternal pessimist, I do fear that pain is the likely lingering outcome from the entire episode. But I hope for brighter days, because I believe in them. And who would deny a man hope?

While the last choice isn't as direct in its relation to Soul as the others, it should be obvious how the connection comes in anyway.

1) John Prine, "Picture Show". In the direction of the last post, who knows why such songs are resonant. This initially seemed a bit perfunctory, and my first assessment of The Missing Years followed suit; thank goodness for the law of multiple listens. The key line, as I see it, is the one about the Mocca man, even if it is relatively out of the blue; as it goes with great lines, it has the right mixture of humour, pathos and magic.

2) Van Morrison, "Caravan". I can't think of a mystic masseur in popular song I trust more than The Man; definitely not when going through side A of Moondance, anyway. This album, and most songs contained within, also never really struck me until recently. But now I find his belief in Soul, whether his own or that of the radio, hugely inspiring; with the latter, I imagine what he's really getting at is us discovering the soul within, and preparing for a journey into the mystic.

3) Cleftones, "Heart and Soul". If pressed, maybe I could think of other instances of covers that do the unthinkable with the original, but why bother? One can only hope to experience a love strong enough for such a song to be the natural outcome. Purposeful and honest, at the moment it seems like one of those tight, perfect songs that were apparently all the rage back in the day.

4) Gram Parsons, "Brass Buttons". If ever melody and lyric came together as perfectly as on "Warm evenings, pale mornings and bottled blues", I don't want to know; nor do I wish to ever experience yearning with the same sadness I sense behind the song. Parson's talents might not have extended to creating a singular album masterpiece, but perhaps his three major contributions to country-rock (I exclude Burrito Deluxe, you understand) are best considered as one long album: in which case, this would still be contender for the best song.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I don't know if popular song is explicitly designed to attach itself to moments in time, but it certainly seems to do this quite a lot with me. Perhaps it is due to its directness, or what purists alternately call its general lack of subtlety (fairly?). Devoted readers will find the following line of thinking familiar: while I firmly believe it has several artistic merits, I won't deny that popular song generally does not reach the level of structural complexity needed to withstand the level of scrutiny that other forms of high-art receive; but my personal inclination is to ignore this. By which I mean that I find the disconnect between the theoretical and the practical sufficiently large for me to focus on the latter. In doing so I don't mean to dismiss the potential limits in the form as being irrelevant, but rather to assert that the medium has given some tangible strength and force to my life. And that is why I continue to give it attention.

Indeed, I have been thinking lately that popular song often serves primarily as a canvas on which I project myself. Consequently, the pleasure might be not so much from something inherent in the music, but rather from the contours of my own mind, places only awakened through this very "primal" music. Recent listens to old Dylan favourites corroborate this line of thinking, and also brings up the classic lyrics-as-poetry issue. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes Dylan's lines are a bit impenetrable, and not as infused with a sense of purpose as one would expect from a Poet. But I feel this analysis is from a reading of the lines, rather than a listening of them. Who knows why it makes such a big difference, and if Dylan was conscious of this? But, for me anyway, there is a big difference, and I still find myself experiencing the same breathlessness at a good Dylan song as I do when recalling a particularly beautiful couplet. The pleasure comes from the way his lines dance inside my mind, and the images they conjure. Discerning what makes the words powerful when sung seems akin to asking why a particular melody can bring one to tears. (Perhaps there is an explanation, but I don't particularly care to find out.)

With all this is mind, it gives me a new perspective on that elusive notion of soul that is commonly associated with popular song. Whatever structural problems it might have, I believe one can't objectively deny this quality, which loosely corresponds to the visceral thrill the music inspires. There's a related Xgau concept, the "emotional complexity" of rock music. I feel like these are all trying to pin down why the music can be as pleasurable as it is. My contribution to the matter: maybe we're looking in the wrong place to explain popular song. Maybe the emotional complexity is not of rock music but of ourselves.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The diligent reader might cite the following as being radically delayed responses on my part, but while I probably could've written about these songs much earlier, I needed time to be sure. Except the last one, which I added just now, and have heard probably three times. Can you spot the theme?

1) Gram Parsons, "Return of the Grievous Angel". It's surprising the lyrics are borrowed, because thematically they seem to be prime Parsons territory: like the album cover, bright blue optimism and hope. As his album openers go, I might like it more than "Christine's Tune"- and that's saying something.

2) Captain Beefheart, "Bat Chain Puller". God the Cap'n is one cool guy. Though I don't have a literal understanding of what he's singing about, I'm pretty sure he takes his writing seriously - he once criticized Dylan for a clumsy line, which implies he must put some thought into his own lyrics - and at the very least the words are atmospheric. Regardless, I'm positive he takes his music seriously. Being a neophyte both with his catalogue and the general progression of the blues through rock music, my sentiments might not carry much weight, but - the last time I felt this sort of visceral thrill from the blues was probably LA Woman. (Ditto the last remark of (1)!)

3) Morrissey, "That's How People Grow Up". I wonder if Morrissey represents the last truly iconic popstar that manages to capture my imagination (and how). While a lot of modern music strikes me as being good, it will be a while before I encounter someone whose every word seems infused with personal meaning. This one claims to understand that life doesn't begin and end with you, and uses that to address his ancient lament about being unloved. It should come as no surprise that I happen to share a lot with the image that Moz projects; so, a life-lesson for him is one I can always use for myself. (c.f. "Break Up The Family" and "Ouija Board, Ouija Board" for past examples in this vein.) If nothing else, it's sometimes good to know that one's feelings are not unique.

Monday, August 17, 2009

It's blindingly clear to me that I've got it all wrong. I should've pursued writing seriously a long time ago, and with conviction improved myself to a state where I could do that full-time. I know that I've never had the raw talent, but I have had more than enough desire for this to have been possible. Except, thinking about it, I don't think I'd care much for a life in the arts; in fact, anything that involves some detachment from this possibly mythological "real world" seems dangerously uncertain to me. But the sentiment lives on, so what I must mean is that I wish I could live many lives, with writing being my focus in one of them. I heard this great line yesterday about this sort of impossible yearning being the fuel behind our passion for fiction: if we cannot experience things first hand, let us at least try to imagine them more lucidly through a talented writer. It's a great sentiment, and goes some way into capturing why good fiction can be so satisfying.

Satisfying for the reader, though. What about the writer? What on earth does he get out of this endeavour? I can only imagine, you understand. I wouldn't want to call the contents of this blog Writing in the classical sense of the word (I'm sure you wouldn't either), but taking my creation as some form of creative expression, I think I write to understand myself better, and to try to confront the dour parts of life so that they are no longer as powerful. Since I've had to continue to do this for five years, one can infer that the aim hasn't always been met, but still.

I don't know if life appreciates being categorized and summarized so often by me. With that in mind, I can understand why it decides to offer impossible dreams, like being a writer. By thinking about my thinking, maybe I will learn...but let me stop before I make it even angrier.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


An article I read a while ago began with an analysis of a particular person (whose name and job, alas, I do not remember), and described his greatest trait as adapting himself to bend to other people's tastes. That sounds rather odious, perhaps, almost like a salesman, but the way it was expressed was stronger, and definitely positive. I instinctively understood the sentiment, but on reflection it seems his gift must have come in his nuances, because I'm sure we all engage in this sort of camouflage in varying degrees. Interactions with family are vastly different to those with friends, for example. But I wonder whether, in my case, I have gone too far. I've been aware of this for a while of course, but when it struck me again that everyone only knows a small part of me, I felt the shock much more than usual. The full me, the "true" me, is well hidden except to myself. And quite baldly, I don't know if that's common or instead cause for deep concern. One would think that at least a few people would have a broad view of the person I consider myself, so why is that not the case? Am I simply too complex to be pinned down easily? I'd like to think that I have some depth and breadth, sure. But am I sure it's not because of the way I act? No. And hence my worry.

I should address what I'm assuming to be obvious, namely, whether this state is bad. At the very least, at moments like these it makes me feel quite isolated. I sometimes think to myself that personal realizations are in the same ballpark as human interaction in terms of importance, and while I'm not too fussed about the former (though we could discuss that point forever), simply ignoring the latter seems dangerous. Implicit in "human interaction" is the qualifier "deep": being merely content with the facile, playful ones (though they are essential and very fun) is not enough, I think. So it comes down to the question: how can we call a relationship deep? Does it require the other party to know more than a snapshot of me, however detailed that particular snapshot may be? If that is the case, then every relationship I have ever had has been an utter failure.

As much as I like ending with such a bang, let me offer this bit of consolation. For one, I think I can do better, that I can open up on occasion and let a discerning soul know a bit more about me. Even more optimistically, I think the answer I offered in the last para might be wrong, or at least incomplete. Perhaps another mark of a deep relationship is me learning something about the other party. It would fit in with my nascent belief that a lot of my personal crises can be assuaged, if not resolved, by moving focus from the self to the other. Solipsism to humanism, I'd like to say. With this point of view, let me rephrase my (still pending) concern: is it just emotional insularity on my part that most of my relationships are forged and essentially based upon a niche passion of mine? I will have to ponder on this.

Big questions being thought out loud in post-form. You'd think it was 2004 all over again.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Recommendation systems for music are very popular, and I've used a few of them. But, as with seemingly everything, I don't like a lot of the culture surrounding it: it appears so flippant. There seems to be a constant, blinding desire to find new music to listen to rather than acquiring deep appreciation of any single piece of music. While there's no doubt that there is probably more great music than we can listen to in a normal lifetime, an obsessive quest to devour it all seems against the very spirit of the music. There should be time interjected between major discoveries, so that we can take pause and really think about what we have already experienced. Otherwise, even if you end up liking everything along the way, it really starts to become a game of keeping up with the rest of the world, which is quite devaluing to all involved.

(I accept some guilt in this state of music-as-a-game, by the way: I get into this mode when I sometimes try to plow through my backlog of unheard CDs. So this is really directed as much at myself than this (possibly imaginary?) community of recommendation over-users.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

I'm recalling the pleasures of catalogues, and especially the special powers of well-crafted lyrics, of rock music aspiring to importance through the lyricist's command and contrast of the personal and the external.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I don't mind if you forget me

I've written about being on the wrong (pathetic) end of relationships before. S recently suggested that this is bound to happen if one doesn't make sufficient attempts to be noticed by acting a certain way: essentially, how people expect, or if you like, want, others to act. Among other things: suppress naivete, be open, and at least seem to be like everyone else. According to this theory, emotional distance is inevitable when you are seen as being either willfully naive or simply unconcerned with what constitutes the "real" world. Its suggestion isn't so much forsaking individuality as forsaking a type of individuality, one should note. And as luck would have it, it's not the way of living I've been perfecting all these years.

These sorts of life philosophies and theories are all unverifiable, and so I can't definitely say whether it's right or wrong: one can only go on experience or instinct. The latter is difficult, because this theory seems to suggest that people are generally narcissistic, and don't care enough to try to imagine things from other people's point of view. Distrust of humanity I'm always down with, and so there is a biased appeal. But who wants to believe such a thing? The bleak consequences of not following this dogma are, frankly, depressing. My initial reaction was, of course, to say "To hell with those people!", the ones who un(?)consciously reserve their memories and emotions for a certain type of person. is difficult to muster the inner strength to believe such things; as I've also said before, keeping beliefs that contradict the majority is not always easy. In things as mundane as politics and the like, it is simple enough, but this is life! Think of the stakes! In sum, I can't say with confidence that I will not regret changing myself so that I'm more palatable. We might need human interaction and understanding more than personal conviction. As a pair of young songwriters wrote in a moment of clarity, "What's the sense in arguing / When you're all alone?"

Does life have meaning? Oh, certainly yes, I very much think so. Is meaning only sensible when it's outside the self? I don't know - quite possibly. This uncertainty is why I worry it is not just socially awkward to lack sustaining relationships: being unable to relate to tales of lifelong friendships is one thing, and I can live with it like many other things I suspect I will not experience. But if that is to mean that it makes for a weak life too, then that goes beyond the merely uncomfortable into the frightening. That is why it is unsettling to think about whether such a fate is unavoidable, and if not, whether it's worth making changes to that end. What do you give up and what do you keep? What, essentially, is the ultimate point of existence? As much as I believe in personal accomplishment and awareness as being someway towards giving life meaning, like I said, it is a game with high stakes. Who is to say if it all means nothing if you leave no footprints in the process?

I do not wish to come off as totally gloomy, however: the silver lining, the one consolation is that my problems aren't as dire as perhaps I've made them sound. My existence isn't completely bereft of meaningful relationships; it's only the majority of them that are that way :-) The ones that burn on are extremely important to me, and I hope they continue as I (we?) travel through the uncertainties of the world in years to come. The best ones occasionally make one wish to be a better person: that is change I am ready for. Essentially, my hope is that the quality of the few trumps the quantity of the many. I hope I am not wrong.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I seem to have a love/hate relationship with Xgau. The good, first: what I like about him, compared to most other music writers, is his interest in looking beyond the mere surface of things, and putting things into some historical context. Fawning praise is definitely not his most common reaction, and even when he does praise, it's usually quite measured. This is good, because it makes it clear that truly great material (A/A+) is released quite rarely. Related to this, he's also really skeptical and near immune to hype, sometimes seeming actually hostile towards towards those he perceives as doling out unquestioning or insincere praise. These are good qualities in a reviewer, but the most essential is of course the writing: without it, opinion counts for naught. Stylistically, Xgau has it down: pithy and to the point, moving away from the obvious and trying to say something that helps frame an album in a larger context. All this I really approve of, because it's tiring to read reviews that merely list tracks and say whether they are individually good or not. His reviews don't try to be comprehensive because they see no need to be: information like the context of the band coming into the album, picks for the best songs on the album, and definitely the details of individual songs, are easily discovered from innumerable other sources. The reviews take it upon themselves, as I see it, to provide the one unique thing they can: namely, offering a critical judgement on the work. And he's definitely capable of writing the occasional classic line, which sometimes becomes intertwined with my mental map of an album; for example, his reviews of Moondance, Grievous Angel, and The Velvet Underground.

I say all this to make clear that when I sometimes say I hate him, it's a hyperbole, foremost, but it's also not blind distaste. Indeed, I find that the reasons in the first para somehow pronounce the faults I list below. With that disclaimer in mind, there are at least two things that get on my nerves. First, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way, it's hard to figure out what his reviews mean sometimes. For all my praise of the style and philosophy of his reviews, there are times when they tell me very, very little about the records in question. Obviously this might be because I haven't read or thought enough about music to decipher his references, and so this isn't really an "objective" criticism; nonetheless, it's a pretty serious one! With the positives from the first para in mind, I don't want to join the legions of people who claim he is intentionally obscure to show off or to seem superior; my sense is that he assumes the audience is smart enough to understand him. Still, slightly more guidance to the reader would go a long way towards making his reviews must-read. As you might expect, this point is especially frustrating when the album is rated poorly, yet I think it's pretty good; I'm very curious to find why his view is so different, but sometimes I am just left puzzled. Which brings me to point two.

The second issue is that we sometimes have a profound difference in tastes, pure and simple. Why this riles me up sometimes is because the criticism comes from someone given to critical thinking, and cannot be readily dismissed as idle ranting. Maybe worse yet, one gets the awful fear that the fellow might be right. But fundamentally, I just disagree with some of his judgements of what makes music good. There's no point being coy about specifics, so let me name some: Henry's Dream, for a start. To weaken my case, I should say that it's not my candidate for Cave's best album lyric-wise. But the condescension in his quotes of Cave admirers is unwarranted: come on, you can't paint us all as an insipid mob who would swallow anything with shades of high-art just to appear sophisticated. At least in my case, admiration of his ties is only in addition to the quality of the songwriting. And yes, fans and critics do have this odd distrust of high art except when one of their own has a connection to it ("classically trained" is frequently cited as a badge of honour), I'll admit. But I doubt that any Cave admirers are suggesting that his lyrics are poetry in the classical sense of the word, and if they are they're hardly any different to the legions of fans of Bob Dylan or Paul Simon or Leonard Cohen (oops! :-)). If one digs further, there is the unflattering portrait of Cave as a "death freak", which is too simplistic, and so on and so on. In short, I think he's simply wrong on Nick Cave. Most recently, there is the review of an AR Rahman best-of. Doesn't make much sense, but if it implies what I think it implies, namely that it's just pleasant means war. (Marginal kudos to him for reviewing the thing, though.) And finally, there is the infamous A- review of SouljaBoy which I don't feel knowledgeable enough to comment on too much. (My instinct tells me it's bogus, but you never know.)

Of course, one might ask what the alternative is: the legions of reviewers on Web 2.0? I prefer Xgau. I like having people who, first, definitely know more than me, but also have a verifiable and consistent take on popular song over a long time period. I like reading people like myself to give suggestions on what to purchase, say, but for analysis that goes beyond what CDs are worth buying, I would go with a good journalist. Which I would have to say Xgau is, despite the criticisms detailed above. In summary then, while there are times he leaves me fuming, I see him as a very important critic; should he influence an upcoming music journalist whose writing avoids my subjective criticisms, that would be simply wonderful.

(By the way, on reflection, the moral that I seem to have derived from writing this piece is: perhaps it's wise not to get too worked up about music reviews. Music fills that role quite nicely.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

To answer the first part of the last post, one reason for the relative paucity of music is my irritation at how I've used it as a crutch for a long time. The healing power of music is well known, as is its ability to serve as an escape from the outside world. Both noble moderation. By deifying music, I've sought to shirk from tough issues, I suspect. The cure isn't to stop listening to music, of course, it's to face up to those unpleasant things. But once again, I seem to have chosen the easy option.
5 months since the last one? And I'm still worshiping that Boognish?

1) Ween, "Flutes of Chi". When I hear it, I think it might be their finest melody. And can I say, imitating music sonically is one thing, but it is Ween's lyrical capacity that is doubly amazing. These later period songs also make me wonder what on earth prompted them to not release more singles. Could the charts really deny this on the basis that it doesn't sound like the competition? I think that if anything can take us slightly in the direction of the monoculture, it is singular talent, and asking for more than this is a bit too much.

2) Captain Beefheart, "The Floppy Boot Stomp". I could've sworn I'd discussed this: it feels like it's always just been there. One of those too-good album openers that is thankfully cooled down by "Tropical Hotdog Night", it demonstrates two things about the Captain's famed weirdness. One, it's rooted firmly in musicality, not dissonance: this is the blues, albeit framed in a more unusual way than one might be used to. Two, he's good enough a lyricist to not fall on simple beatnik or obscurist lines. It's what makes thing song so triumphant.

3) Cockney Rebel, "Hideaway". It's a pretty brave opening track, if you think about it. I instinctively liked the "dirty" vocals from the beginning, because while they did sound a bit exaggerated, it seemed appropriate given what's being sung about. Which is...well, I'm not sure entirely. Isn't that true of all great songs?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The download dilemma

My opposition to music downloading has been an interesting barometer to measure my changing perceptions of music. I'm still a staunch CD-buyer, but even I admit being tempted with the prospect of modern indie artists, for whom the risk ratio is much higher than what I am used to. I once placed enormous value on the tactile qualities of a CD, especially when I actually used the CD directly to listen to the music. It gave an opportunity to flip through the liner notes, and even when the music finished it was nice to look at the CD's place among its brothers on the shelf. Lately of course, my CDs have been in pristine condition because they're only opened once, to be converted into digital form, and subsequently sit quietly for months on end. I hardly ever read liner notes as a result, and longing gazes to the shelf are pretty much the only reaction their physical presence elicits.

Things become greyer when I think of CDs that lie in a house overseas. Not only my old collection that lies undisturbed, but the new CDs that family have added. It might be years before I see them, and so effectively the digital form is the only proof I have of their existence. Is this dramatically different to simply having the music in a digital form? Much as I'd like to argue that the knowledge of their physical presence counts for something, even I see that that's somewhat weak (even if not completely indefensible).

As for the "try before you buy" school of thought, I can't argue with it, really. What offsets this for me is that I really like hearing an album fresh; especially so, as you might expect, if the album turns out to be really good. This lies outside the music itself, sure. But when I say I like music, I think what I mean is not just the sounds themselves, but these "meta" pleasures as well; I don't think I can claim that my love of the sounds is greater than many people, but the meta pleasures, maybe. (The same, of course, applies to a stroll around a good record store.) There's nothing preventing me from downloading the entire album and listening to it in entirety, but there seems to be an implicit sense of it not demanding serious attention. I haven't parted with money, so there's no emotional reason to persist with something that seems initially puzzling.

What CD purchasing also prevents is overconsumption. Part of the allure of downloading is that it makes so much available instantly. I can imagine that once you get into the habit, quitting is close to impossible. When everything is available with no effort, it's pretty tempting to try and listen to everything in one go. In other words, persisting with a single album and letting it define one's world for weeks/months on end requires conscious effort. (It's possible, sure, but difficult.) I don't know if we can say that this is an objectively better mode of listening - probably not - but it's what makes me quite uneasy about downloading culture. I fear that our nature makes overconsumption natural (whether we realize it or not), and that means a devalued musical culture.

It goes without saying that I could be wrong about everything. The positive of this possibility is that it means I can listen to Bon Iver within a decade.

My initial problems with Neverwinter Nights 2 gave way to the realization that, no matter how undeniable the faults, the fact that the game is sufficiently reminiscent of Baldur's Gate 2 makes me want to forgive it. "Reminiscent" can be taken to mean aping unsuccessfully, if you like, but recalling BG2, which I first played a good 8 years ago, was a meta-pleasure that I will associate with the even otherwise still good NWN2. My character of choice in BG2 was (and still is) a spellcaster, and I still shiver when thinking of some of the higher level spells. I don't know if I will call it the best RPG I've ever played, because there is some very strong competition for that title (and that's only games that I know of). But it is the game that introduced me to the D&D system, which appears to be the de facto setting for almost all modern fare, and as such it's the first comparison for any game in that mould.

(Spoilers in this para) There were a couple of things I liked in the endgame, both of which were incremental novelties. First, the turning of some party members to fight against you was an interesting way to incite emotions in the player. After travelling for hours on end with some people, having them turn on you at the end can really hurt. In my case, I was especially shocked because I had almost exclusively used Qara the whole way through the game, and a betrayal at the very end made me really angry. Angry enough to unleash a WoTB on her :-) Second, the ability to control all your party (save the traitors!) in the final battle definitely makes sense for me. There's no sense in fighting an evil that threatens the fate of the universe and suddenly deciding that beyond four people, control is too difficult. I think that this again lends to the epic feeling of the end fight, because you have a large group fighting in unison against an ominous enemy.

Another thing that NWN2 made me realize is that, contrary to whatever protests I might have about being offered something new in games, I'm at a stage where I'm very happy just chugging along with things that I'm used to. Effort in learning something new is looked upon with great suspicion. NWN2 has a crafting system that lets you create special artifacts, a la Morrowind I suppose. "I suppose" because I spent zero time investigating this, being wholly focussed on getting Qara that Wail of the Banshee so that I could defeat that dratted King of Shadows. (Spoiler: Turns out Shadow Reavers are immune to death magic. Ah.) From memory, even KOTOR might've had this, and there too I completely ignored the undoubtedly enjoyable side-game. Heck, in this game I didn't blink when the area-of-effect spells left party members completely unscathed; no purist would stand for such a thing. (Do you know how much easier boss fights are when you can cast Meteor Swarms with impunity?) I should feel guilty about all this, but to be honest, the mere fact that I was able to enjoy a game after such a long time was good enough. None of which is to say that I've changed my mind about the whole issue of the future of gaming. No, I think I just I don't particularly mind if this is the height of gaming for me. But the medium as a whole ought to try to do better, just so a larger audience can figure out what exactly makes games interesting, and worthy of one's time.
I've noticed that at least three times now, I've been unable to summarize my preference in music. Not because it's amazingly eclectic or anything, but because (a) I don't really listen to that much of it, and (b) I don't detect a coherent thread connecting most of my library, which, aside from a few outliers whose catalogues I am deeply familiar with, is a slew of artists where I have at most two or three albums. Now that I have time to mull over the question, I'd call my library by and large the tried and true branch of rock music; "classic rock" without the connotations that that term carries. (I'm really not completely familiar with the Who & Floyd, say.) Reason (a) I've already discussed several times. What of (b)?

As I pointed out at the start, I instinctively don't want to call (b) eclecticism as much as I do laze. Yet, while laze might play some part, I think the relative lack of depth is best explained by my extreme propensity to saturation. With that claim in place, why is it the case? Certainly a quirk of personality to an extent. But what vexes me is the following: could it also be the relative lack of quality in the artists I pursue? Are most of them just worth two good albums? If so, we might all be doomed. I naturally think the things I like are objectively pretty good, and I can say that most have been received fairly favourably among the critics. But somehow, I haven't managed to find more than a handful whose catalogues have provided a slew of satisfying albums. My hope is that the fact that I know about relatively little music, and have been operating on a small section of it, means that I might be missing out on some artists who have released, say, five or six good albums. Off the top of my head, I can think of two artists immediately whom I would never have guessed, prior to listening to them, were capable of as much good material as I've discovered. My personal inferiority complex might be transferring to the music I listen to, then.

I suppose the tiny drops of classical fall outside, and remain unscathed. But I still wonder if I will ever be able to fully appreciate the genre. I am fairly confident that popular song, and its "emotional complexity", will be the primary form of music for me; classical provides a nice foil, a sense of scale and balance. I hope I can continue to find resonant music in popular song.

By the way, what I really don't want to say my catalogue is, although I hate to admit it might be as good a description as there is: Starostin's music. Although, if I think about it, there are worse things for a catalogue to be than a subset of a reliable reviewer's recommendations. The uncertainty I have is whether it means I display sufficient individual thought when it comes to music, but then I start wondering about the objective quality of music, and all that. Let me quit while I'm ahead and think about how good my last 3 non-Starostin albums are.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Prologue to a lost tale.

It was the sound of water that made me realize that I was onto something. It was just an ordinary pan, non-stick I suppose, but as I was swirling away water inside it, taking away the remains of the day's food, it made that sound. How would you describe it - like something was hovering, magnetically drawn to the kitchen sink, watching my every action. At first I didn't believe it, of course, and thought it was just that I had been staying at home too long. In fact, I hadn't ventured out of the house the entire weekend, even though I had my best shirt on. I didn't consciously think that I would do this in the morning, because then I would have surely saved the shirt for a better occasion - but still, it just seemed right at the time. Just seemed right at the time. That's as good a justification as any for the tale I have to weave. When I heard the water making that noise, I knew that there was really nothing else for me to do.

I tried filling the pan with more water, and excitedly stirred it around. I was doing it too quick, because now I could hear nothing. Eager not to lose the opportunity, I took a firm breath and steadied myself. With a slower swirl of the pan, I could hear the sound again. It was like nothing else I had ever heard in my life, and nothing that I have heard since. Now convinced that it was not my imagination, and that the sound was real, I had to think about what it could mean. Why was there this magnetic voice that was speaking to me? What could it possibly mean?

These are questions that you will be impatiently asking yourselves as you read it. I wish that the answers were simpler, but as it turns out they are not. To address them requires nothing short of an old fashioned story, replete with the nonsensical and unbelievable. But you must believe me, all of it is absolutely real.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Periodically, through the 5+ years I've kept this blog, I've stopped to ask "Wait on, why do I keep writing here?". This is usually done in extremely arid periods for my creative side, where I wonder whether I'll ever be able to write anything meaningful again. The truly devoted reader will also remember posts that attempt to subsequently answer this question, which are usually along the lines of "As long as there is the capacity to feel a connection to something out of the mundane and ordinary, the desire to write will accompany it naturally". Does that mean the periods where I write nothing are filled with sweet nuthins? I don't think so. I think it's just that chronicling every such event is, firstly, infeasible, but also can lead to the chronicling overshadowing the living. There's the classic xkcd comic about going on a beautiful trek only to think about what a good blog post it will make; that, I think, is the danger.

I assume that there is going to be a time when I decide to quit while I'm ahead, and I wonder what, if anything, I will discover about myself looking back. I find some of my older writings quite painful to look at, not just because of their content. I sometimes worry that the undesirable elements that manifested them - the blackness of four years ago - still have some capacity to arise. The positive? I think the environment we create can help offset these inner demons, to quell them to some extent. I don't know if simply having put these demons to the page is enough to fully conquer them, but at least it gives one a clearer sense of what the enemy is.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Good Old Games is an incredibly rare instance where an idea that seems amazing and yet impossible (due to market issues such as demand) actually comes to fruition. Who knew these guys could get publishers to agree to the concept? There have probably been many casual frequenters of abandonware rings wishing for exactly this site. Personally, I find it wonderful that there are people who share my taste for classic era PC games, and also that there is now the potential to very easily purchase them. Again, its existence is truly amazing! I haven't bought anything from them just yet, but only because I don't have time right now for a good ol' game. Summer might see a splurge, because something like this has to be supported two times over.
Just for the record - I still think GS is a good reviewer, and all-round astute writer on popular song. As I've grown somewhat older, my worship of him has slowly subsided, but on reading one of his essays the other day I realized that his writing can still be pleasing. I think even he will admit that some of the opinions he has expressed are not so tenable - the death of popular song, for example - but I've yet to find many people who can match his calm, as-close-to-objective-as-possible reviews. Nowadays, though I have very humble aspirations in terms of writing about music, I'd still like to be as good as possible. GS is still as good a role model as any to work to this end.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Laze aside, early mornings aren't a favourite because they catch my mind in an awkward state - between the drowsy quiet of the late-night and the equally drowsy quiet of the late-morning is something of a bazaar, abuzz with voices speaking what seem to be deep truths. Unfortunately, some of these voices turn out to be nonsense, but it's hard to suss out at the time. A class I'm unable to place are those that mock the optimism I've tried to build over the years - the voices of the perpetual critic and pessimist. I probably created them, but I don't really want to listen to them in the morning; partly because at that time of day, what they say is awful persuasive! Of course, as the day goes on I can calmly refute their points one-by-one, but those early morning blows revive ancient doubts and worries. They remind me that when I say I'm captain of my nihilistic side, that's only in the waking hours. Which I should have realized means very little.
A follow up of sorts to the candidacy post. Big, life-changing events, can just occur. They just happen, and that's pretty much it. They needn't be accompanied by approving signs from the divine, such as coinciding dramatic changes in the world. It might seem cynical to take this to mean that life is very seldom about you. But I think one can see it as reassuring. It suggests that if bad patches are the product of some malevolent force, they may just be our moment in the dark; a necessarily finite period of time, because, well, that force has lots of other people to get to. It's slightly odd for me to argue this, given that I personally feel as though life is at least partially "about me", in that it's propped up by the confluence of personal events. But I concede that it isn't always the case, as my recent experience has shown. So the above is an attempt to try to make a little more sense of the eternal enigma which I concede, again, might just be wishful thinking. But, if you'll permit another aphorism: life might just be about finding out how to view everything in its proper way.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Jesus etc.

As I made my way through the usual post-lunch crowd, I noticed a man with a fairly modest looking sign standing quite self-contentedly among the usual horde of students with their colourful promotions of clubs and charities. The content of his sign was less modest, though, and claimed to do no less than prove the existence of the Lord, among other things, in 5 seconds. Knowing that all manner of cranks and fools abound on this particular road, I normally would not have paid him any mind. But an insidious part of me wanted to go past him and hear his case; I don't know why exactly, but I can guess that it was to feel some sense of pity and maybe superiority. As I drew closer, however, the more charitable part of me kicked in, and I felt that only bad could come of this; most likely he would spout some nonsense, and I would be able to laugh at his ignorance. While this might have provided some brief amusement, it seemed then to be extremely mean-spirited, and clearly the wrong thing to do. Realize that all this was in the space of a few seconds, of course, and so before I could consciously walk the other way, I was already within earshot of him. He was talking to a couple of people, who looked as incredulous as I probably would have. Would have, had he not been so happy with himself. There was no bitterness typical of one who rants that we have forsaken the Lord, nor was there the condescencion or pity of one who fears the path we have taken. His simple case was made & sealed with a laugh that was, among other things, so innocent, and consequently, genuine. Looking at his face, I could not help but feel a profound sense of empathy as I heard his words. In all, I think his case was proven in much less than 5 seconds.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A conjecture based on personal experience - we all seem to consider ourselves some form of critic nowadays. With the rise of mediums where one can express oneself comes the natural urge to do just that, and in a way befitting a professional in the area. I don't think there's anything wrong with aspiring to be a critic, which I see as aspiring to simply possess a more discerning eye/ear than the average man. But I suspect this desire leads us to works that would once have been confined to the most esoteric branches of academia, and yet in today's world become magnets of incessant argument. It is very tempting to dive into these arguments and attempt to come up with a valuation that attempts to pin down a challenging work of art. This is again not necessarily a bad thing, as it can open your mind (maybe). On a personal level, though, I would like to have the critic in me play a slightly smaller role in the future when it comes to choosing what to read/watch/hear. In particular, I would like to pursue things that are likely to give lasting pleasure more than things that are of some less emotional, more academic interest. I'm loath to give an example, because I have to defend what I suspect might be academic about it, but I hope the sentence just completing suffices. I believe it may well be true that one doesn't fully understand the development of modern literature without reading Ulysses. But will it be pleasurable? I suspect not. (Only suspicious, not sure, and my mind might change, etc. etc. Bah, this is why I didn't want an example!) In that sense, I am happy to admit defeat to the book, and accept that it may forever lie beyond my comprehension. I get the feeling that the modern day everyman-critic finds it hard to do so, and instead has the constant drive to conquer everything. It is definitely noble and laudable in one sense, but I wonder if it is to a good end.

A very valid question is whether my broad opening line only applies to moderate obsessives. The answer may well be yes, but then one wonders how many such people exist. (A conjecture based on personal experience - we all seem to be moderate obsessives...)

Friday, March 13, 2009

An addition to my constant struggle with the internet. As it is something I am quite familiar with, let's take music. I absolutely value the recommendations and articles the internet has afforded. Yet their pervasive nature does have some other implications. There is no longer any innocence with our musical tastes, and it is hard to for us to find out for ourselves who the real deal is. I can imagine that if you start a voyage nowadays, there is no period of discovery that is subsequently looked on awkwardly. You can be 15 and espouse about Trout Mask and Rock Bottom. One consequence is that there's no longer a sense of music that is beyond us, that is too advanced for where we are at currently: "anyone" can (and many do) rattle off opinions on such things even if they require a certain maturity on the listener's part.

Even leaving that aside, it is difficult not to get inundated with information, and we feel the need to keep up constantly. It is a contradiction of sorts, because maybe without it, I would likely never have even considered, umm, jazz, say. But now it feels like one has to qualify and justify everything...

Friday, March 06, 2009

Hmm. So last week I advanced to candidacy. I wonder what awaits now.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

I need to be reminded, ever so often, that not everyone knows the details of the entire catalogues of Dylan, Springsteen, Simon and the like (AllMusic is still not a ubiquituous name!); not even people with an interest in music of that time. In fact, even ignoring specific artists, not everyone thinks about music in terms of albums. I observe this not as something to be proud (or ashamed) of, but as evidence that my aim of in-depth knowledge (in popular song, but in other areas too) is not as common as I sometimes think.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bone Machine

I suspect there are certain things that are supposed to happen when more and more birthdays pass by, when people remark again and again how old you are now. Some of these things aren't particularly to my liking; I don't care for several of them that I view as childish, but ironically I'm often the one tagged with that label. Some of these things are avoidable - alcoholic abstainment - some of them, maybe not - the view that I ought to have made serious headway into finding the one (actually, just one is fine!). It's too easy and cliched to say I don't want to grow up. In fact I've always felt a little old, which probably is because I've always felt a bit out of place, and all that. I certainly don't care for some of the standards that are placed on being an adult, but is that just a sign of immaturity? That's the problem with going against the grain, either by choice or circumstance - you're pretty much on your own, and have to decide whether it's not mere hubris that makes one think that 50,000 others must be wrong.
Songs that bring out a rare urge in me - hitting the replay button.

1) Ween, "Take Me Away". Regarding Macca's debut, GS makes the observation that only a genius like Macca could take a single verse and craft "That Would Be Something" out of it. I'm not saying Ween are on the same level as that master melodicist, but they have at least managed the same feat. Upon first listen of Chocolate and Cheese, I found myself unable to resist replaying this one more time, which is something I very rarely do. It's rare that a first listen is so convincingly gripping that I absolutely need another to hear the song again right away. This might not be the average psychoanalyst's first choice for a song I'd take to immediately - I'm not entirely myself sure why I like it so much, but one aspect I do like is what I perceive to be an expression of genuine feeling that says exactly enough. One verse is enough because nothing more needs to be said - that long sigh near the end is more than enough.

2) Gram Parsons, "A Song For You". As diametrically opposed to (1) as you'd like, but my analysis of it is very similar. Emmylou Harris sounds superb, and the melody is similarly fitting the tone. But "Take me down to your dancefloor" is the clincher, and "honest" was ringing through my head when I heard it. I use "honest" a lot in my mental analysis of music, and I think what I really mean is that it has soul. It speaks something important which exists outside the artistic world it resides (and was created) in.

Monday, January 19, 2009

With the general trend of the democratization of the internet, I've noted two trends with regards to video games: (1) mainstream sites (e.g. GameSpot) have seen their reputation plummet, and as consequence, (2) there has been a rise in more independent writing on games (a relatively "mainstream" example might be the Escapist). Both are good things, I think; while I feel that GameSpot isn't as fawning as people claim, I think that the sort of critical analysis that is commonplace with books and movies has been missing from the industry as a whole. Which makes (2) a good thing. In theory.

There are a few dangers with introducing the aforementioned style of critical analysis to a new medium. Two that I can think of are that, obviously, one can go overboard, and also that one can start finding things that are not there, just because pretending they exist, or at least overstating their presence, leads to neater analysis! You might have guessed that I think some newer writing on gaming has flirted with these problems. While I've enjoyed some of the social analysis of gaming, and also the very personal meaning it has in people's lives, I think the case for the immersiveness of game worlds, and the choices that games present, are sometimes a little overstated by the new school of gaming journalists and bloggers. Instead of overhyping the case for a game based on graphics, they do it based on gameplay :-) I am a staunch believer in the power of quality games - as I've written about here before - but I must admit that this type of game comes about fairly rarely. I very much understand the wish that more games were like this, but pretending like a good game is great by attempting it to study it formally (usually with the word "aesthetic" used a few times) is just wrong. This overly academic analysis treats a game as though it's a book. It's understandable; many of these writers are probably young, either in our just out of college, maybe studying the humanities. But the danger with using this sort of analysis is simply that I don't think games are currently complex enough to warrant it, so the writing can come across as pretentious. Not to mention that it gives the impression that the only way for something to be worth one's time is if one can wax lyrical about it. Which leads me nicely onto the related subject of whether games are art.

The whole "are games art" issue came up famously with Roger Ebert's slight against gaming, and I did mention it before on the blog. Briefly, these are my updated thoughts. I think a lot of times, art becomes synonymous with something that is worthwhile; sometime that isn't a waste of time. People who play games are used to having to defend against stereotypes about the medium, and the ones who care about the issue of whether games are art are likely the type of gamers who derive more than immediate gratification from them; a Planescape lover can think about it long after the game is over, and reflect on some of the thoughtful settings in the game much like one would do with a book. Therefore, I understand their frustration when a learned critic comes along and says something that sounds like it means "You're all just wasting your time". But I'd say that gamers should be willing to admit that there in general, there isn't the same level of depth and complexity in a game compared to what is designated high-art, because this doesn't matter. The example I brought up the last time I discussed this issue still seems apt; I have no idea if The Simpsons is art, but I certainly don't believe the years pleasure I have derived from it are somehow "not good enough", or "irrelevant" compared to the pleasures of high-art. High-art might be transcendent and contain truths that we have to strive and struggle to understand, and which can genuinely warp the way we view the world and life. But high-art is not everything. Things can absolutely be instructive and valuable without needing to be art. I suspect that good video games fall in this set for the strand of "thoughtful" gamers (like me ;-)), and I think we'd be better off not really worrying whether one day Planescape will be studied in schools around the world; instead, let us hope that designers continue trying to tighten up the aspects of a game, and create something that is truly fulfilling rather than just flashy.

Those are my personal views at the moment. I might be a bit hard on the new style of gaming writers, and in part I'm willing to admit that maybe my misgivings are because I'm out of touch with many of the supposed modern classics. I genuinely think that bringing a more serious and critical discourse to gaming is a good thing. I just think we need to be careful not to make it overly academic, and not get too excited about them being the next great art-form. At some level, games are meant to be fun (though the word can be used loosely), and that can get forgotten if we try to convince ourselves that they deserve to be treated like films and books. If they do deserve such a place, and if quality games continue to be made, it will become apparent to anyone who cares to scratch below the surface.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Literary retrospective 2008

Ok, this is probably going to be borderline ridiculous. I can't even pretend there's a tradition to uphold here, either. There is egotism, though, as noble a force as any.

Last year's reading list was rather average, as you might have guessed. The one positive was the conscious move away from the Western canon, which I was inexplicably stuck for longer than is healthy. It turns out that, as I suspected, there have been good novels since 1930 too. I'll probably get around to re-reading Kafka and Camus someday, but at the moment I'm going to continue trying to spread out. This pretense of being a classicist when it comes to reading was really stifling me, and I've been enjoying my nascent journey in the rest of the literary world.

If I had to pick a favourite among this year's limited batch, I would have to say it was Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. There are two very personal metrics I have for measuring the "meaning" a book has for me. First, at least temporarily, my view of the world is forcibly moulded into whatever the book decides. Invading my dreams is a good start, but sometimes I also imagine that I have read something that has elucidated very deep truths about life that I have long suspected, but never been able to put down in words. It's the point of all books, I suppose, except that this sort of thing is rarely achieved. Auster's book is the first since Crime and Punishment where, on reading it, I started feeling as lost, confused, and unhinged as the narrator(s); that is a huge compliment, incidentally. It is easy to simply state that the world is chaotic, that life can sometimes be mysterious, etc. I think to have the idea really resonate, however, requires considerable skill. In Auster's case, I particularly liked how the stories abjured notions of identity, in particular the unforgettable (and rightfully unexplained) moment where the mighty Quinn witnesses two identical versions of the man he is set to follow.

Second, great books often convince me that as long as I find enough of them to read, I'll never lose the dream of someday writing of similar worth. I remember feeling the old itch to start writing even around 50 pages in, and by the end of it I imagined it was one of those stories written "for me", which I could imagine arising out of my consciousness, even if I might not be able to express the story as compellingly. Something about the way the characters were simultaneously lost, and yet almost walked into the pit willingly really resonated. (That's not necessarily a good thing, but I'll put it down to my lack of clear mental separation between what I feel and what I think others feel.) I've only read one more Auster (The Brooklyn Follies), which is good but not as good as this. Still, it also has these elements of chance, luck, and ponderings on fate that made the trilogy so compelling. If more of Auster's work is in the same vein, I might have found a new idol.

Number 2 for the year was probably Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls: a great example of a book that I had been intending to read for a long time. Fortunately, the heightened expectations from the waiting were matched by the book's quality. I should note that I didn't really take all of it that seriously: yes, you wouldn't find a female character like Maria in a modern novel, but I forgive the novel because of the time it was written. Perhaps even for the time it was a little chauvinistic, but it's enough of a gray area for me to ignore it. I had heard a lot about the tight writing style of the book, which I initially imagined might make it quite pedestrian, even banal. But, it turns out that Hemingway is more talented than I am, because he uses the style to complement the sections where we hear the characters think, assessing and reassessing situations. An interesting way to relate to characters: my poor book-memory can't recall a similar device put to such effective use. The other plus in the writing is that it is extremely readable, probably because it is fairly heavy in dialogue. And finally, it all works towards that"hell of an ending", as McCain put it.

I was very disappointed with Murakami's Norwegian Wood, one of those books I'd meant to read for at least a couple of years; I was so focussed on finally getting my hands on it that I didn't even consider the possibility that I would actively dislike it. The style is fine, actually - it is absolutely distinctive, and it's the sort of thing that one can imagine being really engaging. Alas, only "imagine", because the story itself I found rather irritating. Toru's constant "trysts" might be seen as normal, given the time the story is set in. You could make a case for it, but I still found it quite distasteful. Instead of being sensual (which I could understand), it came across as just lascivious; I was especially fed up with the events of the last few pages. Like I said, though, the writing style is interesting, so once I've managed to put aside my disappointment, I might try the Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

It took a surprising amount of perseverance to get through a Huxley book I hadn't previously read - Time Must Have A Stop. I felt I pretty much have to, given that I was thinking a lot about time at one point during the year, and was eager to find anything that resolved the olde quote: And time, that takes survey of all the world / Must have a stop. "Must" - the "must" of one who knows, not one who hopes (I think the book brings this up towards the end). I don't have a lot to say about the book, except that I am glad to report that, on the whole, I liked it. I was worried that I would find Huxley's style positively callow, because the "me" who liked his books four or five years ago was very easily impressed. I initially did find myself cringing a little - the classic Huxley signposts like casual discussions about art at the dinner table, for example - but this passed. I think that Huxley's writings are still instructive because, while he sometimes does let the ideas get in the way of the novel, these ideas are still pretty interesting. They aren't just adolescent mysticism, because they are consciously about the interplay of art and science. The issues he deals with still haven't been answered, really; and while his personal views might not be novel, I can't deny that I still find reading his little essays-masquerading-as-novels quite enjoyable. Phew! One idol still intact. If I ever have the strength to go back to Hesse, I hope I can say the same thing!

I'll stop here, I think; while I did actually read a bit more than the above list might suggest, few of the other books had a particularly strong impact on me. All "good", but I have trouble enough writing about books I really like. Predictions for 2009? With the discovery of a nice little bookstore near where I live, I'll probably end up reading more semi-modern books; Updike, anyone? And while this is a little bold, I think I'll end up nominating Cat's Cradle to be my favourite book of the year. Were I a baser man, I would've cheated and included it on this list. But as proud defender of the sacred traditions of the retrospective, I shall wait for the next year to arrive, and see what competition Bokonon might face.