From the monthly archives: April 2011

For anyone curious about my next novel, I posted a story on Fictionaut here that was originally published in the brilliant and very worthy of your attention literary magazine trnsfr. A radically altered version of this story will be used for the thing-in-progress. Over the next few mothns, bits and pieces of the new novel will be appearing in various lit-mags, and I will keep you posted as to the when-and-where. Because I know you would much rather read experimental fiction than my silly ramblings about Guided By Voices. Right? Hello? Anyone?

 

A brief list of inde rock summer reading recommended by Brandon Stosuy over at Stereogum includes Artificial Light, which is nice. You can read the list here.

While I would argue that Artificial Light is very much not “GBV-themed,” nor “indie rock-themed,” nor “rock-themed,” — it’s mainly about a librarian, after all — a plug is a plug and I appreciate the mention.

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Courtesy of the wonderful site BibliOdyssey via the Bibliothèque nationale de France, a set of gravures by the French artist Auguste-Louis Lepère for A rebours by J-K Huysmans. Astonishing.

Vertov's Notebook

 

Vertov's Notebook

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 pseudo-doc still retains its power to amaze. Post-modern before the term had even been (unnecessarily) invented, Vertov presents a documentary about a documentary, while at the same time showing us a documentary. The only character is the cinematographer, or to be more accurate, the man with the movie camera (various English language titles have called the film Living Russia, or The Man With A Camera, but the original Russian translates literally to Man With A Movie Camera, and it’s easy to see why). There is no plot, beyond that conveyed in the title. There is no narrative. The lone character is “played” by Mikhail Kaufman, who is also the film’s actual cinematographer (along with Gleb Troyanski, uncredited). The footage was edited by Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova. It was filmed in the Ukraine, largely in Odessa, and presents (ostensibly) a portrait of the Soviet worker’s life from dawn to dusk. Vertov (real name Denis Arkadevich Kaufman) used 1,775 separate shots to make MWAMC, and in presenting these shots, in a rapid-fire manner that pre-dated and predicted MTV by some fifty plus years, he invented, deployed, or developed techniques like double exposure, fast motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, jump cuts (see what I did there?), extreme close-ups, footage playing backwards, stop-motion animation, and a self-reflexive style taken to such an extreme that at one point he has a split screen tracking shot where each side has opposing Dutch angles.

The pages above are taken from Vertov’s notebook and give some idea of his process. You can find out more at the excellent site Mubi, which deserves your full attention and support, much as Vertov’s still-astonishing masterpiece does, all these years later.

Side notes:

1) The film collective formed by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Golin, among others, in France, active from 1968 to 1972 (Tout Va Bien and Letter to Jane are both available from the Criterion Collection, the others… good luck), called themselves Groupe Dziga Vertov.

2) I discovered that the Russian word for “lift,” or elevator, is or at least was “lift,” transliterated into Cyrillic characters, by watching this movie. I recently wrote a long short story with that title but did not explain where I had taken the title from. If anyone from Tin House is reading this post, this is how that happened.

 

The Stabat Mater is a 13th-century hymn to Mary. There are actually two Stabat Maters: the Stabat Mater Dolorosa (about the Sorrows of Mary) and the Stabat Mater Speciosa (about the Nativity). The title refers to the first line: Stabat mater dolorosa, or “the mother sadly stood,” and: Stabat mater speciosa, “the beautfiul mother stood.” We are concerned here with the former, though the latter is also lovely.

The text has been set to music many times over the centuries, including by Palestrina, Vivaldi, Rossini, and Arvo Pärt. My favorite is the version by Dvorák. There’s also a black metal version by Anorexia Nervosa, if that’s your thing.

Literal English translation side by side with the Latin original (including variations) can be found here.

Happy Easter!

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The ANS light-sound synthesizer, developed by Russian optical engineer Evgeny Murzin between 1937 and 1957, synthesizes sounds from artificially drawn sound waves. The sine waves generated by the ANS are printed onto five glass discs using a process which Murzin had to develop himself. Each disc has 144 individual tracks printed onto it, producing a total of 720 microtones (discrete pitches) available to the user. These are arranged vertically from low frequencies at the bottom to high frequencies at the top. Convolved light is then projected onto the back of the synthesizer’s interface. The ANS is completely polyphonic and will generate up to all 720 of its pitches simultaneously if required.

The ANS was used by Edward Artemiev in composing several of his scores for the director Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker, etc.) There is only one in existence; it currently resides in the Glinka Museum in Moscow. Murzin named his creation  in honour of the composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (ANS).


Because American Literature will not be able to sleep until I have weighed in on David Foster Wallace’s posthumous unfinished novel, The Pale King, I agreed to provide several words on the subject for the Fanzine here. You’re welcome, American Literature. Get some rest. You look tired.

An item on the iambik tumblr indicates that the audiobook version of The Failure is now available for purchase. You can get a free download of the first chapter here.

The reader, Tadhg Hynes, did an amazing job. His Irish accent makes my writing sound a lot more musical than it actually is. Check it out.


justplug.it | Paul Gallant | installerex

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You might or might not be interested in a story I wrote and posted at Fictionaut here. I mean, I’m not a mind reader. Yet.

Reminder to Los Angeles residents: I’m reading with a few other SLAKE contributors this evening for GOOD LA’s launch weekend at Atwater Crossing.

 
 

A squib of coincidences nudged a thought to the forefront of my brain yesterday. Spurred by this post on Andrew Sullivan’s site, I began to reflect on the banality of the idea of the “sad genius,” as the term is used by Sullivan or his reader. I had thought that we were done with that idea. I had thought we had grown smarter and moved on. I was wrong.
The idea of melancholic-as-creative-genius is attractive because it is romantic, and while not all romantic notions are harmful and stupid, this variety is, at least from my spot in the crow’s nest. To address this particular post: (I’m not going to get into a discussion of aesthetics, much as I’d like to, but) Nick Drake, for example, long before that really dispiriting and creepy Volkswagen ad (“Pink Moon” is about death), was having a perfectly fine posthumous career. The ad boosted his sales to hitherto unknown heights, especially here, in America, but sales as an indicator of anything other than sales is dangerous territory. Drake was B.V. (Before Volkswagen) and still is revered, hallowed, untouchable, iconic. His worst album was the stripped down mostly-acoustic Pink Moon. His best song is “Northern Sky,” from his second-best album Bryter Layter. He’s not nearly as good as, for instance, Bert Jansch, who is alive and well and relatively obscure because he didn’t die young, or Richard Thompson, who is less obscure but also ungodly talented and very much alive. Jansch directly inspired Drake. Thompson’s songwriting I would argue is by a fair measure more depressed/depressing than anything in the Nick Drake canon. Both were and are better players and songwriters than he was. (Okay, it looks like I am going to get into a discussion of aesthetics. Sorry.) Finally, it’s not entirely certain that Drake committed suicide.

That he was clinically depressed, there can be no doubt. Depression, real depression, is debilitating. It’s an awful thing. It is also entirely unrelated to creativity, except that sometimes having a creative outlet helps a clinically depressed person cope. And sometimes, too many times, it’s just not enough. Elliott Smith opened for Guided By Voices when I was in the band for about a week on the West Coast. He seemed like a nice guy. His music wasn’t very interesting. A lot of people hold a different opinion (about his music, I mean). He was, by every account I have read and from everything I’ve heard from people who did know him, clinically depressed and fighting addiction. I very much doubt that the miserabilist streak in his music contributed to his suicide (if it did, we would not be able to explain Morrissey).

My own experience with depression, both personally and as witnessed firsthand, has been jarring. I’ve written about this in both fictional (Artificial Light) and non-fictional ways (in an article for Spin‘s 25th anniversary, unavailable online as far as I can tell), but as some of you know, when Kurt Cobain killed himself, on April 5, 1994, I was there. In Seattle. I mean, I was already there, on other business. After his death, I went to his house, talked with his mom, and his sister, and his understandably loopy widow, and several other people, some of whom had flown in for the private ceremony that was held later that day in a small Unitarian church somewhere downtown. The ceremony was deeply weird in ways that I still don’t want to think about, but it was also sweet, confused, and tremendously moving — much like Kurt. His death was, to those who knew him, almost anticlimactic. He’d joked about it, talked about it, threatened it, sung about it, and actually tried it so many times already that all you could really do was what we did. Which was to be profoundly sad. But his depression was unrelated to his “genius,” if you believe in his genius, and though I did and do not, a lot of very smart people did and do. His depression was a bio-chemical condition, most likely inherited, exacerbated by his addiction to heroin, which addiction was, in the first place, a symptom and not a cause of his depression.

The same day as the anniversary of Kurt’s death, I received in the mail the unfinished novel of another suicide, David Foster Wallace. If I were David Foster Wallace I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to publish The Pale King. But I didn’t know him, and I don’t know what instructions, if any, he left for his family and friends. Maybe he wanted his book published. His battle with depression, and with addiction (you see how often the two go together) is carefully and convincingly examined by Maria Bustillos in The Awl here. The story is uncannily similar to that of many other depressive/addictive people I know and have known. Some of those people are dead, too, but because they weren’t famous, no one except their family and friends knows.
Because of these two coincidental events, and the post at Sullivan’s blog on The Daily Beast, the last couple of days I’ve been contemplating death. Suicide, more specifically. Not my own, although, sure, that, too. My doctor once asked me, “Do you ever have thoughts of suicide?” I said “Every single day of my life.” Because, I told him, I think everybody does, even if they don’t admit it. He said he could have me committed for saying that — not the part about everybody else, the part about myself — but I laughed it off as a joke.

It wasn’t a joke. I really do think about suicide every single day of my life, and I’m almost certain everybody else does, too. Even if only on a subconscious level. I’m on an antidepressant medication (Kurt refused to take antidepressants, except heroin, which is very common with clinically depressed or bipolar people), but my particular chemical imbalance manifests more in a kind of social anxiety bordering on agoraphobia that I used to self-medicate with alcohol. I sometimes still do, because (for instance) as a novelist I’m obliged to do readings in public to promote my books. My bio-chemical problems on the spectrum from slight to severe edge much closer to the former, but it’s still not unicorns and rainbows. And that’s just me.

An artist — of genius, of talent, of modest gifts, — or even a hybrid hack like me has to access the full range of human emotion in his or her work. Those who focus on the melancholic aspects of life are not necessarily depressed, just as those who are less relentlessly downbeat are not necessarily happy. The illness is unrelated to the art. Romanticizing the notion of the “sad genius” is only going to produce more sad geniuses, and while I have nothing against sad geniuses as such, I don’t like losing friends. I would prefer we treat people who present with depression and addiction, frequently both, as suffering physical or at least psychological ailments rather than the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Poetry is not treatment. It’s poetry. However much I might want to believe in the healing power of art, I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. And it hurts. 



 I know many people—deeply serious, scholarly people—have never managed to make it through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Perfectly reasonable. Life is short, art is long, and FW is impenetrable. Howsomever: I recently discovered an online resource that might make it less task-y and more joy-y. It’s the entire text of the book with glosses for every sentence, sometimes those given by Joyce himself, so you know it’s not some grad student in a carrel somewhere in the womb of Alderman Library making stuff up in a notebook.

Try it on for size here.

For a long time I didn’t have my own copy, because I had given it to Robert Pollard from the band Guided By Voices, of which you may have heard. He plunders it on occasion for song titles and lyrics. For instance.