A Matter of Form

[See the note about this video at the bottom of the post.]

From whiskey river:

Any Morning

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

(William Stafford)

and (italicized portion only):

There’s a great deal to say about how we tend to see, and hear, only what has been pointed out to us… We are given words for those things that are pointed out to us. What about everything else? What are we missing? That’s one reason I like poetry, because it allows me to surmise, to question what may be beyond what we presently see and hear simply because it’s never been noticed.

(Pattiann Rogers [source])


For all my skepticism, some trace of irrational superstition did survive in me, the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me also has a sense, that it means something, that life speaks to us about itself through its story, that it gradually reveals a secret, that it takes the form of a rebus whose message must be deciphered, that the stories we live compromise the mythology of our lives and in that mythology lies the key to truth and mystery. Is it an illusion? Possibly, even probably, but I can’t rid myself of the need continually to decipher my own life.

(Milan Kundera, from The Joke [source])

Not from whiskey river:

[Eidothea explains to Menelaus how to trap her father, Proteus:]

The never-erring Old Man of the Sea
comes from the depths just when the sun has reached
the sky’s midpoint — the time when Zephyr breathes
and screens him with the dark and ruffled waves.
He sleeps encircled by the sleeping herds
of seals, whom lovely Amphitrite raised;
up from the bitter brine, the same gray swell,
these seals emerge; they bear a bitter smell.
At break of day I’ll lead you to those caves
and have you lie in wait; and you must take
three of your crew along with you — but choose
the best of those who man your stalwart ships.
I’ll tell you all that Old Man’s traps and tricks.
First, one by one, he’ll count those seals — and when
he’s finished tallying and scanning them,
he’ll lie among them as a shepherd would
among his flocks. When he lies down to rest,
be quick: attack with daring, spare no strength.
Grab him and hold him fast, however hard
he strives and writhes. He’ll try to take the shape
of every animal upon this earth,
as well as water forms and dazzling shapes
that blazing fire takes. Don’t let your grasp
fall slack; just grip him harder still — hold fast.

(Homer, The Odyssey, Book IV; translation by Allen Mandelbaum [source])

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing versus the other arts. Universities, for instance, often have a Fine Arts department — and a wholly separate creative-writing program, under the aegis of the English department. I’ve wondered what goes on in the writer’s head which makes the creation of writing different from the creation of other arts, like music, painting, dance. (Note that I’m not asking how do the products differ; I’m asking how the process differs.) Is the (conventional) linear nature of language the simple heart of the difference — the old left brain/right brain balance thing? How on earth can some people slip — evidently so effortlessly — among multiple forms of creative expression?

What got me thinking about this was the idea of music mashups and cover versions. There’s no direct counterpart to either of these musical forms in writing, is there? For the former, you’d have to somehow interleave passages from one work within passages from one or more others; as for cover versions… well, I’m at a loss there. Maybe anthologizing a story is akin to covering it? Or is a “cover” version of a story simply a retelling of the plot, in different words, with different characters, and so on? Or a translation into another language?

Or am I just thinking too hard, to too little effect? :)

The soundtrack to the video which opens this post is a cover of “Where Is My Mind?,” from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa, by the influential alt-rock band the Pixies. It’s about as different as possible from the original, while revealing what were (to me!) hidden depths in the melody.

Here’s the original, for your own comparison.

[Below, click Play button to begin. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:57 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Where Is My Mind?
(music and lyrics by “Black Francis” (Charles Thompson);
performance by Pixies)



With your feet on the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, (yeah!) yeah!
Your head will collapse but there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself:

Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Way out in the water
See it swimming?

I was swimming in the Caribbean
Animals were hiding behind the rocks
Except the little fish
But they told me he swears, trying to talk to me to me to me

Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Way out in the water
See it swimming?

With your feet on the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah!
Your head will collapse but there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself:

Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Way out in the water
See it swimming?

(With your feet on the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah!)



Note: More about the video…

The pianist, one Maxence Cyrin — he also “created” the video itself — apparently has run the gamut of musical styles, from classical, electronica, and rave to the Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach, and show music. I’m not sure under what genre you’d file his newest album, Novö Piano, exactly — this track appears on it — but there and elsewhere he’s experimenting with piano-only cover versions of many popular vocal songs and artists. He melds these into videos whose visual content consists of scenes from classic movies. This cover of “Where Is My Mind?,” for instance, is set to scenes from 1928’s The Mysterious Lady, with Greta Garbo.

(Here‘s his YouTube channel, where you can view these and others — as well as recordings of some live performances.)

Whatever you call what he’s doing, I find the results not only apt but strangely… moving.

Update, 2010-06-16: Per my comment of a couple minutes ago, below, here’s George Winston, and his Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel:

[Below, click Play button to begin. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 5:22 long.

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  1. JES, I LOVE this post! I don’t know how you chose these particular excerpts, but they are perfectly in keeping with your theme of A Matter of Form. I am especially taken with the Cyrin piano cover and his selection of the Garbo movie as the backdrop for the music. Like you say, it is strangely moving — I got chills from watching it, and want to find out more about him. I am also adding “The Mysterious Lady” to my Netflix queue. In a way, his covers remind me of The Section Quartet, an amazingly talented string quartet that performs as Sam Phillips’ backup band on many of her sublime musical concoctions. This is a great video to check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Tm5rR9bZ_8

  2. Gosh, you’ve outdone yourself this week, an astonishing selection of beachcombings! That is quite possibly the sexiest music video ever made – I am struggling against the temptation to fritter away the whole morning watching it again and again.

    Thanks to Jill, too, for introducing me to The Section Quartet – that’s another hour or two of happy YouTubing for me.

    I loved the image in Close Encounters of Richard Dreyfus modelling the mountain out of garbage, mashed potatoes. Perhaps what is most fascinating to me about creative endeavour is not where the ideas come from, nor even why we seek to express the ideas through one medium rather than another, but where the compulsion to give them expression comes from. Lots of people have that picture of the mountain in their heads, but only a few can’t let it go until they’ve done something with it, ‘made sense’ of it somehow.

    Good luck with your writing day. If I catch you loitering around Froogville, I shall shoo you away.

  3. Thank you, I love that tune! It reminds me of London when it was new to me, I was 18 or so. A very exciting time of my life socially and creatively. A time when I began to realise that much more is possible than I had previously thought (been led to believe!)

    Thinking covers. I listen to that song quite a bit now thanks to James Blunt and Placebo covers.

    Your post makes me think of two things that I am convinced to be true. One: that we never change. We do that same things – friendship, romance, over and over again. Some may learn to compensate to an extent for behaviour that is not received well only because we learn that it does not get us what we want. But basically we are on repeat. What you are is what you will be.

    This brings me to my second opinion. There is no such thing as original. We are climbing over and amongst ourselves and each other negotiating an understand of our repetitious condition. I think striving to be original is a waste of time.

    So what do we have? It seems to me thinking of your question, “There’s no direct counterpart to either of these musical forms in writing, is there?”
    that writing is a cover version, a cover version of your experience and so if I am right about my two points above many of, possibly all, our experience.

    I have often thought that the biggest pit fall here is ‘not being of your time’ because the only way that work we consider to be great is to be understood is through the eyes of others (others experience giving them some insight into what the artist/writer is doing.)

  4. The piano cover is beautiful.

    As for the creative process… when I make a picture or write a story I start with an image in my head. But the story needs an extra step because I’ve got to take the image and translate it into words.

  5. Sometimes I don’t get around to replying to comments because I can’t get to it right away and, well, the world moves on.

    And sometimes the comments themselves give me so much to think about that I’ve just gotta (somehow) find the time to try living up to them in my reply. And if I can’t find the time, I’ve got to make it — even days later…

    Jill: You can’t imagine how much it tickled me to see that you included the Maxence Cyrin video in your kicks of the week over at Seven Impossible Things… on Sunday. You (and Jules, for that matter) have recommended so much great music to me that doing it just once for you feels like small (but gratifying) payback!

    As apparently happened to Froog, too, your mentioning The Section Quartet proved quite a diversion for me. I noticed at the foot of their Wikipedia entry a link to an article on another band (is that the right word — “band” — for these groups???) named Apocalyptica, a cello quartet specializing in the music of Metallica. Yeow!

    As for how I chose the excerpts, same way as always. I read through recent (usually so!) whiskey river posts and sort of do this mental squinting to see if I can discern a commonality. Sometimes it’s a word, sometimes a tone, sometimes a bit of the old je ne sais quoi. As it happened, though, earlier in this particular week I’d already been thinking about the cover versions/mashups question by the time I started the post. The only thing I specifically came up with was the bit about Proteus.

    Froog: I hadn’t thought of the video as sexy, exactly. But then I watched it a couple more times, trying to apply your… idiosyncratic filter, so to speak. Wow. I see it now. (That last groping kiss looks like GG may have had to insert her left hand strategically into place to get the shot past the censors.)

    An excellent question, about the compulsion. Somebody — you? — told me of a story s/he had read once, in which an extraterrestrial civilization was completely baffled by the notion of lying (why would anyone lie?). I’ve often thought that about fiction (institutionalized lying, I guess): what on earth compels authors to make up people, places, and events which never existed? isn’t real life enough? But you’re right — the compulsion to create from scratch is curiously local to specific individuals.

    That whole sub-plot about Dreyfuss and the mashed potatoes feels slightly creepy to me. Too close to the bone, perhaps.

    fg: Whoa, I’d never have pegged you as a radical fatalist. “Nothing is original” and “We never really change” sound like excerpts from an early 20th-century Dadaist tract.

    Of the two propositions, I think I could buy the second more easily than the first (although I’m not totally on board even with that one). On originality, the analogy I’m thinking of would be to the notion of copyright: you can’t copyright ideas; you can copyright only the expression of ideas. I’d agree that trying to come up with a new idea (or imagining you have) is, as they say, a mug’s game. (Like, out of all the billions of ideas which anyone has ever had, only you came up with that one?) But shaping the idea into new clothes: ah, now there’s something worth shooting for! (Worth just experiencing in someone else’s work, even if we can’t quite pull off the expression ourselves.)

    marta: Well, yeah. I can see that. But — especially as an expert in turning words into art! — do you have any idea what it is that moves you to do X as a picture, and Y as a story?

    You could probably explain a dozen times how you move from one form to the other, and the whole thing would still baffle me. :)

  6. It was her blowing the taper out in his face that did it for me! (Er, is that the word? It’s so archaic now, I’m not quite confident of it.)

    Well, that and her utterly failing to notice him in the opera box. Could any man spend an hour looking at Garbo’s shoulder blades and the nape of her neck and not be enslaved? I don’t think so.

  7. I hope I don’t sound fatalist. I feel alive thinking of that music, the tightness of his military collar and the possible explanations for our fragile social imbalances.

    I get the feeling we are on the same page re my second proposition. I sound fairly hard line in my approach I realise. I suppose I think I am an ideas lead person by nature – for what that is worth. ie. I ran til I dropped when young when I had the mind to and now, arguably, pursue the idea over the seduction of the medium.

    Re my ‘we never change’ point, this, I am playing around with at the moment. Of course its not a new idea to me or anyone (ha) but one which I am trying on for size more seriously these days. I know it flys uncomfortably in the face of what we are often told about self improvement. Of course if I am right it spells a long and lonely road for some but in general I don’t think its a negative concept. I had fun putting it to a bunch of friends a month or so ago. About seven of us of which 3 or 4 went to Stanford uni. (As good a think tank of a kind as one might wish to find?) I put it to them and we debated this all through diner. I was texted the next evening to say I must come out as the conversation had not yet been dropped.
    I am not sure I am right but maybe it is this simple…? ie. One little example:
    I suggest, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic – ie. it is possible to stop drinking if you become aware of yourself and work on it but it would be dangerous to think that this part of your predilection is ever gone away.

    Ok, so I hope I am not offending anyone with my frank thoughts in the dark. I am just thinking (of record) aloud in order to hear your thoughts back.

    I’m waiting for the football. It should be a corker… DPRK vs. Brazil. Why is there a such a big gap between the second and third matches each night! This window of time looms in the early hours.

  8. JES, just wanted to pop in and say that you mustn’t undermine your substantial contribution to my cultural education — I don’t think a Sunday has gone by on 7-imp that you haven’t brought up something that I didn’t know about, and your posts always send me off in a frenzied search for more information. Thank you for that.

    Thanks to you, I have become completely obsessed with Mr. Cyrin — I even went so far as to become a fan on his Facebook page, and to post that I may in fact be in love with him (don’t tell my boyfriend). He should probably consider a restraining order. :-) If you haven’t checked out his other youtube videos, I highly recommend them. As a silent film fan, I now have a new list of movies to locate (sadly, most of them are not on Netflix). Truly brilliant.

  9. Froog: Yes, in the loge — one of my favorite moments occurs there. At around 0:35 he’s sort of checking her out from behind. The camera shows her in profile, ignoring (?) him. Then at 0:40 he tears his gaze away, forces himself to turn back to the onstage action. Something in the way his eyes look at just that instant makes me imagine he’s thinking: Must… stop… looking — What just happened to me?!?

    I looked around for some stuff on The Mysterious Lady while preparing this post. One fan site posts excerpts from several contemporary reviews, including this, from a Betty Colfax of the New York Evening Graphic:

    Miss Garbo takes to a close-up like no other star in Hollywood. She overcomes the handicap of an atrocious wardrobe, big feet, and widening hips with a facility of expression and a charm which still keep her in a class by herself.

    The second sentence: my, how tastes change.

    fg: Thanks for clarifying both those propositions. You seem a little less scary to me now. :)

    “Pursue the idea over the seduction of the medium”: nicely put. I don’t know many people who can do this, either as artist or as audience: separate what they can see of a work from what they can’t see — from what they have to peer through the surface to get at. For that matter, I’m not sure I myself can do it most of the time. It seems to hint at a separation between idea and medium, as though they could be separated somehow — that you could unhitch any old horse of an idea from the wagon of a particular medium, and hitch it to a different medium altogether. Seems possible in the abstract, but although the idea may be (nearly) unchanged, neither of the two works would be the same. Idea + medium = specific work, no?

    “Predilection” is one of my favorite words — in a class of words I like so much that I almost never use them, because they’re so unusual-looking/-sounding that their overuse would stand out, perhaps making people think I’m just showing off, and clumsily at that.

    I do see what you mean by analogy to an alcoholic. The key (to me) lies in the notion of predisposition; in general form, I could accept the “we can never really change” if what it means is something like “once predisposed, always predisposed.” An ingrained, unbreakable tendency to be a certain way — an addiction, say — doesn’t doom us to a life of acting on that tendency.

    A friend to whom I’ve been very close all my life has been, as an adult, an apparently incurable serial romancer. But finally, finally and to the huge relief of those close to him, he seems to have come to his senses and recognized the thing in himself, accepted that it’s “built-in,” and decided that — with others’ help — he can be free in ways that he could never be while “freely” flitting from woman to another.

    So, is this guy the same as he was before? To bring it full circle, his “idea” — his being — may be what it always was. But his “medium” — behavior — is radically different. So I don’t know, but it seems to me that on balance, in this one important way, he’s a radically different guy.

    Jill: I was bitterly disappointed not to find all of The Mysterious Lady on YouTube or Vimeo or any of the rest. So I don’t know, but suspect, that Maxence Cyrin didn’t select those clips at random. The cuts/edits don’t exactly match the rhythm of the music; he didn’t do anything so obvious. Instead, he seems to have cut (especially from one scene or POV to another) on the rhythm of the emotions. (This may be close to the goal of Roz Morris’s “beat sheets” for writers which I described a while ago.) Very, very nice.

    And yes, I did like the other classic-film videos he’s got on YouTube — the music didn’t speak to me as much as this piece did, but they seem as carefully put-together.

    Aside from Facebook, MC seems to have decided that his Web home should be on MySpace. Which I hate, and never visit (“What, never?” “Hardly… ever!”). I hope he does a “real” site eventually!

  10. Update (for Jill and anyone else who might still be following this thread, and still be obsessing about the Cyrin piano number): I kept thinking that it reminded me of some other song, by some other pianist. And I just remembered which one. I’ll put a little audio-player thingy in this comment when I get a chance to upload the number…

    …okay, here we go. This is George Winston, from his December album, and his rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Unlike Maxence Cyrin’s “Where Is My Mind?” it’s not sexy/languorous, so dispel that hope from your mind. And it’s longer. For some reason parts of this “feel” the same to me, musically, as Cyrin’s lovely piece.

    …[a moment later]…

    Shoot. Can’t put the audio-player thingy here. I’ll add it to the foot of the post itself. (Isn’t technology wonderful?)


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