Featured Post

Lilt: a theory of melody

A melody has to catch the ear. A lilt is an up and down movement that has to be asymmetrical or surprising in some way. It can go up, and ...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lilt: a theory of melody

A melody has to catch the ear. A lilt is an up and down movement that has to be asymmetrical or surprising in some way. It can go up, and then down. That is fine, if there some surprise there, or some element not completely predictable. It also has to have a shape, and be intelligible as a series of related phrases. I think that everyone, even those with no musical knowledge, understands a melody, everyone could be able to say: it goes down, then up, then down again but to a place lower than where it started. Or it leaps up and then comes down by steps. Or it goes up in smaller leaps and then down on the same notes.  Just as there is a harmonic rhythm (how fast the chords change) there is melodic rhythm, in the same that the same sequence notes will not be same melody if the rhythm is very different.

I know how to write a melody, and I did it well the first time I tried. A melody can be very simple, like the first three phrases of "I got rhythm." A simple melody is not worse than a complicated one, though.  It can have more or less movement, and move across a wider or narrower range. Since my melodies are mine, I like them. They express exactly what I want them to. I work them over until they are what I want them to be. I'm not afraid to repeat a note 5 times in a row.

I generate melodies through tension with the chords, using a lot of ninths and chromatic movement in the underlying harmonies.

Could someone explain why one melody is better than another? I know some melodies are more catchy, some are beautiful. Some are elegant and symmetrical. Some of my favorites are these

The Blessing (Ornette Coleman)
Monk's Mood (Monk)
Wachet Auf... (Bach)
Star Dust (Carmichael)
Lester Leaps Up (Young)
Nessun Dorma

Sometimes I know there is a melody, in a technical sense: notes that move in a way that is intelligible, but I feel that there is not really melody in the sense of something that I would have wanted to write as a melody. It is scrub-a-scrub baroque music of the mediocre sort, or its Clementi equivalent. I get tired of jazz improvisation when it involves a lot of aimless running up and down scales, rather than melodic development. You can have a melody that happens to coincide with a certain sequence of notes of a scale, in fact that is impossible to avoid. But you shouldn't write a melody that's just a scale.

I saw the movie Evita, and, though it is all sung, there are not melodies in the sense I mean. It is like talking, but non-melodically, on designated pitches.


I always liked this word. It follows the morphological pattern of sacacorchos or aguafiestas: third-person singular verb + plural noun. Someone "who spares your life" or allows you to live is a bully, or someone who acts like they are braver than they are.

"Perdonarle la vida a alguien," to spare someone's life, means to condescend to them. So if someone writers that in a newspaper column, someone spares Borges's life, it means they are treating them with condescension, deciding whether Borges can live or die.  It is arrogance, or the arrogation of an authority the critic doesn't have.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


I've read two books in the past few days, one for a book review, the other for a tenure review. Both deal with several authors, but they are all male. Another book I reviewed for a press this summer dealt with Spanish writers in New York.  Once gain, only male writers appear.

You could guess the genders of the authors of these books. But the last one was written by a woman. So my question is: why not put some women in your books? Why do women authors have to be studied in books only about women, with a lot of other books about other general topics (modernism, translation, etc...) ignoring women completely?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

I couldn't find Hans Josef on my iTunes list.  I guess he was Haydn.

More Bialoksy

Logan strikes again.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

Feeding the Ego

I have a book review to do. The person does not cite me (when he might have???). Although the book will get a good review from me, it will be with less relish. I don't think that he had to cite me, but he might have. I think, egotistically of course, that the kind of ideas that I develop, and that he might have cited, would have benefitted his approach and made his book smarter. It is a smart book in its own right, though, so I have to be fair. Ah well...

(Do you think a book on translations of modernism between US and Spain would cite me, or not?)

I also have a tenure case to do. The person does cite me favorably, and I am favorably inclined to his work. He not only cites me, but makes me sound smart in the process, giving enough of my own words to make me sound that way, and using my point to make another good point of his own. And he does it more than once. This is not the perfunctory, cover-your-bases citation that we perform so often, the citation that only shows that you are aware of the work, that people will expect you to cite it so you do.

What is even more gratifying, is that he cites something that I forgot I had written (not the book but the particular analysis of a poem).

Why should I even need these ego boosting events? Normally, we work long hours writing a book, or several books, and we only hear sporadically about whether anyone likes or appreciates them, or knows why they are good. The institution treats scholarship as items on the cv to be counted. Your colleagues know that you have published, but they work in different fields.

My personal non-academic friends don't read my scholarship. I had an interesting conversation once with some acquaintances, people I see often, in which we were talking about how much we read. At some point, I had to say: do you know what my profession is?

So yes, as far the adulation and ego boosting: bring it on!    

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why plagiarism isn't "intertextuality".

Suppose I set a novel in Wyoming, and have my main characters be Frodo and his uncle Bilbo. That would set up intertextuality with Lord of The Rings. Suppose Bilbo left a valuable object to his nephew in his will...   Or I wrote a micro fiction in which a cockroach turns into a human being. Bolaño wrote a sequel to Kafka's story of Josephine the mouse singer. Graham Greene has a novel based obviously on the Quijote. Ashbery has a cento in which each line is a line from a famous poem. Koch parodies "This is Just to Say" in a poem called "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams."  A play called "Lorca in a Green Dress" uses material from Lorca's plays and poems.

Intertexuality depends on the reader recognizing the source. It so happens I don't know the origins of all the lines in Ashbery's poem, but I can tell very early on that it's a cento (and even labelled as such!).  A concealed "intertextuality" with an unknown text is plagiarism. Concealing the origins, and using a "intertext" that most people would not recognize, means that there is no longer any intertextuality at work, because you don't have two things playing off each other.

Most intertextuality is with the canon. I'd say more: by using a text as intertext, if it is not already canonical, one is canonizing it, or treating it as a work that ought to be recognized by the reader.

As the cat climbed over the top of the jamcloset

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

To soothe a time-worn man

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada más. Caminante, no hay camino

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

As I sd to my friend, because I am always talking, John, I sd, which was not his name

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

Stout Cortez!

Silent, upon a peak in Darien 

First the right forefoot carefully

Silent, upon a peak in Darien 

Yo quiero ser llorando el hortelando de la tierra que ocupas y estercolas 

Silent upon a peak in Darien

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art, not in mute splendor

Silent, upon a peak in Darien...