Tomorrow morning at 8:50, fully vaxxed and masked, I’ll begin my nineteenth year here at Mondoville, going face to face (mask to mask, anyway) with a class full of Freshpeeps for the first time since March of 2020. I have three sections of Froshcomp on MWF, and my Age of Johnson class happens bright and early on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While the circumstances aren’t precisely what I might have hoped, I’m glad to be back. Happy New Year.
I made a run down to Real City yesterday in the hope of picking up a few last-minute supplies for my return to on-campus life. Alas, I was out of luck — neither the Sam’s Club nor my local groceries have my libation of choice in stock. But the trip wasn’t a total loss; I picked up some of my favorite instalunches to nuke in my office, and swung by the used media emporium, where I happened across William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? I’ve read it before, but it’s been a good 20 years or so, from my days at Ball State, and I’m always glad to read Goldman’s work.
During an online departmental meeting earlier in the week, one of our new faculty members asked if we have requirements for faculty, “like a dress code.”
After a moment, my chair said, “I think I’ll let Warren take this one.”
I said, “It’s generally expected that you wear something. ‘Pants-free Tuesdays’ failed to make it out of committee.” My chair went on to add that, given that our students are known to arrive in pajamas, this is generally not high on our list of concerns.
“I’ll be wearing a tie on the days I teach,” he added.
“I’ll wear pants,” I said. And I will. And who knows? I may even make it through Wednesday before I go to my T-shirts. Part of that is that I’m just more comfortable in a T-shirt and khakis to begin with — I’m hot-natured to begin with (a consequence of being, um, well insulated), and adding a mask to that, I’m likely to be sweating like Michael Vick at a PETA meeting. But that’s not all of it. I really like the stuff I wear, and I’ve dressed like that whenever I could for years.
Granted, this sometimes causes a bit of cognitive dissonance from folks. A former college classmate once told my mom, “When I met him, he was wearing a Motorhead T-shirt and jeans, and then he started talking, and I realized he was really smart. So I wondered which part was real, and then I found out they both were.” Even when I was a kid, I was big and ungainly, to the point that at least once a visitor from the Nashville school board asked my principal about “the big slow kid.” The principal called me over and asked me to talk a little about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. So I did, and he sent me on my way. Likewise, I’ve run into people who jumped to conclusions about my fondness for comic books (Note to younger readers of this blog: In the Seventies and early Eighties, comics hadn’t taken their present role in the popular culture, and were still seen by many as lunkhead material.) and loud, fast music.
Years later, as I was reading the Life of Johnson, I learned about people who would meet the Great Cham without knowing who he was. What they saw was a large, scruffily dressed man with a habit of muttering to himself, rocking side to side, and occasionally expelling great whooshes of breath. The newcomers would sometimes think Johnson was a village idiot type who was receiving the charity of shelter from the master of the house. Then, when Johnson spoke, the visitor would have to readjust his or her preconceptions. Radically.
I’m no Johnson, of course, though I can certainly find his distant echoes in myself from time to time. As I once said, “A big, ugly, smart guy from modest circumstances, in many respects an autodidact, prone to depression, who went on to be the leading intellectual of his era. Why wouldn’t I love him?” On the one hand, I suppose my general scruffiness may be a manifestation of my innate lack of protective coloration. On the other, I trust that whatever I’m wearing, I’ll be able to establish an ethos for my students soon enough.
I ran across an interesting article last night as I was surfing a bit. Anthony Garone is a writer who plays guitar, and he has released a book discussing his quest for his musical Holy Grail, “Fracture,” a diabolically difficult track by King Crimson. (Note: Using the terms “King Crimson” and “diabolically difficult” in the same sentence verges on redundancy — that’s sort of the point with Crimso, but even by Crimson’s standards, this track is beyond brutal.) In particular, the book focuses on a section of the song about three minutes into its eleven-minute length. Per the article:
A relentless barrage of 16th-note (four notes per beat) whole tone/tritone-driven, string-jumping rapid picking, the moto perpetuo was usually performed, back in the day, at no slower than 125 beats-per-minute and was sometimes delivered as rapidly as 138 BPM. As Garone writes in his technically in-depth yet unerringly transformational Failure to Fracture, this demands a guitarist play somewhere between 8.3 and 9.2 notes per second for a full three-and-a-half minutes. Forget about the varying dynamics and perfection of both articulation and tone, and that’s still somewhere between 1,743 and 1,923 notes, folks.
As part of his decades-long effort to learn and play the song (perhaps as much white whale as Holy Grail, now that I think about it), Garone made pilgrimages to “guitar circles” — retreats led by Crimson guitarist/mastermind Robert Fripp. (Fripp himself has a long-term connection with the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, whose teachings seem to inform Fripp’s own.) Fripp’s reputation over the years has been for sternness and iciness. Typically the nicest term I’ve read for him has been “schoolmasterish.” Again from the article:
Garone describes the discomfort he encountered shortly after arriving at his first Guitar Circle, where drugs and alcohol are not permitted. With this particular course taking place in Mexico, attendees were responsible for keeping the location spotlessly clean, quite literally from washing dishes to cleaning toilets. And these tasks were largely done in silence, a lesson Garone learned early on when, upon trying to strike up a conversation with a fellow attendee while washing dishes, was promptly and quite abruptly told: “The work will be done faster and better if you stop talking. Please try to work in silence.”
At these retreats, guitar obsessives try to develop their craft and creativity. As the article notes, “Fripp endeavors to teach students that mastering guitar (or, really, mastering anything) is far more than mere technique.” While I’m not a guitarist, I try to do my own creative work, and some of Fripp’s ideas strike me as interesting, so I thought I’d share them with you:
1. Begin with the possible and move gradually towards the impossible.
2. Desperate doesn’t mean hopeless. Hopeless doesn’t mean impossible. Impossible doesn’t mean unnecessary.
3. Efficiency: as little as possible and as much as is necessary.
4. One measure or possible and impossible is the probable.
5. If we are to describe the characteristics of the level to which we aspire, our aspiration becomes possible.
6. It is not possible for the musician to play music. But, it is possible for the musician to be played by music.
7. Perfection is impossible. But I may choose to serve perfection.
8. Sometimes the impossible is necessary.
9. The artist is a bridge between the possible, the impossible and the actual.
10. The greater the seeming imperfection, the greater the possible transformation.
11. The necessary is possible.
The optional is expensive.
The arbitrary is unlikely.
We are asked to work honourably.
Honourably = what is possible + 10%; too hard =
Two steps beyond hard, rather than one.
When determination becomes “grim determination.”
When we lose a sense of ourselves.
12. We do what is possible and allow space for the impossible to enter.
“How we hold the pick is how we live our lives.
The less I try the better I play (or, in Guitar Circle terms, ‘effortless effort’).
Our approach to playing reflects how we live our lives.
Correcting and preventing mistakes is as essential a skill as playing a song.
Play with extreme diligence, patience, humility and folly.”
These strike me as the sort of thing to which I might (as I said the other day) “listen with wide-open ears.” They may interest you as well — or not. And that’s fine.
Since I typically close these things with music, today’s choice is a pretty obvious one. The moto perpetuo segment begins at around 2:53. Buckle up.
See you soon!
I hope the start of classes went well for you (and everyone else in your college)!
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