Wrestling With Darkness

ben monder guitarist

“Day After Day,” Mr. Monder’s latest album.

I wish the article quoted here had reproduced the De Chirico painting it mentions. I like to see evidence of how painting and music can interact for an artist. I’m only now becoming acquainted with Monder’s music. His recurring dream suggests that even an accomplished musician can’t always play how or what he would like to play. That somehow inspires me to keep playing.

Mr. Monder has a print of a small, phosphorescent De Chirico painting on the wall in his practice room at home in south Brooklyn. “There are paintings that seem to convey what I’m trying to sound like,” he said… He described a recurring dream that he said the painting always reminds him of. “I’m in a room, which is flooded with light, and I’m practicing, and I’m able to play just, anything,” he said. “It’s super inspiring, and I always wake up and I’m like, ‘Where did that go?’”

(Giovanni Russonello, “Ben Monder and David Torn: Jazz Guitarists Unafraid to Wrestle With Darkness,” NYTimes, 4-9-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

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“The End of Satire”

charlie hebdo

Detail from an exhibit of children’s drawings sent to the Charlie Hebdo office after the 2015 terrorist attack. Credit Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

I have a taste for good satire. I also revere an ability to change one’s mind in a considered, informed way. The article quoted here moves me for what it shows of this process, which can be painful, as well as for what it articulates about satire. Mr. Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris, says that the real problem with satire now is “that it has become impossible to separate it cleanly from the toxic disinformation that defines our era.”

… Satire is a species of humor that works through impersonation: taking on the voices of others, saying the sort of things they would say, using one’s own voice while not speaking in one’s own name.
… I insisted that satire was speech in something like a grammatical mood of its own, as different from the declarative as the declarative is from the interrogative, and that it was therefore subject to its own rules.
… Over the past few years I have been made to see… that the nature and extent of satire is not nearly as simple a question as I had previously imagined. I am now prepared to agree that some varieties of expression that may have some claim to being satire should indeed be prohibited.
… The truth is that the nature and proper scope of satire remain an enormous problem, one that is not going to get any easier to resolve in the political and technological future we can all, by now, see coming.

(Justin E. H. Smith, “The End of Satire,” NYTimes, 4-8-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

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A Black Hole Sings in B Flat

galaxy ngc 1275

Galaxy NGC 1275. Credit NASA.

There is great buzz today around black holes in celebration of the latest observations. The sense of awe these phenomena induce has intersected just now with my private boning up on fundamentals of music theory, leaving me astounded on many levels.

In 2003, an international team led by the X-ray astronomer Andrew Fabian discovered the longest, oldest, lowest note in the universe — a black hole’s song — using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The B flat note, 57 octaves below middle C, appeared as sound waves that emanated from explosive events at the edge of a supermassive black hole in the galaxy NGC

The notes stayed in the galaxy and never reached us, but we couldn’t have heard them anyway. The lowest note the human ear can detect has an oscillation period of one-twentieth of a second. This B flat’s period was 10 million years.


(JoAnna Klein and Dennis Overbye, “What Is a Black Hole? Here’s Our Guide for Earthlings,” NYTimes, 4-10-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

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“I don’t paint what I see but what I saw”

munch sick child

Edvard Munch’s 1896 painting The Sick Child. Photograph: AP.

There’s much that’s discoverable for me about Munch. These excerpts stood out. Artists I admire are similarly self-critical and leery of pretty pictures.

Munch’s house and studio were on a remote hillside above Oslo, where he fled after his 1908 breakdown to escape “the enemy” – critics and fellow artists. He would live there with his beloved dogs, and the occasional horse, until his death. Liberated from his angst and alcoholism, he painted and repainted the nature around him, jealously hoarding his work while treating it with mind-boggling contempt. He would leave paintings outside in in all weathers beneath a narrow mansard, saying: “It does them good to fend for themselves.”

Munch drew animals beautifully, visiting zoos to study them. But he wrote: “We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart.”

munch outside studio

Edvard Munch with brush and palette with his canvases at his house outside Oslo. Photograph: Munchmuseet.

(Claire Armitstead, “Edvard Munch: booze, bullets and breakdowns,” The Guardian, 4-8-19 — Note: “Armitstead” is not a typo.)

(c) 2019 JMN.

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Side Hustle


How old are “old Chinese sayings” and how many are actually Chinese? Fewer than all of them, I surmise. However, one I encountered said that wisdom consists in getting things by their right names. It appealed to me because it stressed accuracy in speech.

Awash as we are in mendacity, the article quoted here refreshes by signaling how “cute” euphemisms can cloak misery — in this case, “the chaotic truth of working life in today’s America.” The author recommends that we improve the way we talk about work by shunning cynical, exploitative jargon.

The “side hustle” is one of a growing roster of trendy corporatized idioms, like ordinary household appliances that are now “smart” or plain vanilla businessmen and women remade into the more exotic “entrepreneurs.” Our jobs are now “flexible,” although we are the ones contorting ourselves to work at all hours, or we are professionally “nimble” because we are trying to survive on freelance gigs.

So what can we do? For starters, anyone writing about work… should stop glorifying long hours at work or juggling multiple workplace identities… As workers, we might acknowledge that “side hustle” is an insidious term and resolve never to use it again. More broadly, we must fight other forms of this falsifying new jargon and seek out more truthful language….

(Alissa Quart, “The Con of the Side Hustle,” NYTimes, 4-6-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

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dan robbins

Dan Robbins, the inventor of painting-by-numbers, who has died aged 93. Photograph: Jim Newberry/Alamy.

For art critics, painting-by-numbers was, and is, a byword for robotic repetition and unoriginality…

(Jonathan Jones, “From Warhol to minimalism: how painting by numbers revolutionised art,” The Guardian, 4-5-19)

At some point in my pre-teen years I was given a paint-by-numbers kit. I vaguely recall doing the little project and being pleased, as well as fascinated, by the result. I may or may not have done another kit — I simply can’t recall. I’ve never connected this humble experience with my lifelong interest in, and sporadic practice of, painting. Having found stimulation in paint-by-numbers, even as a youth, seemed like a lowbrow thing to confess. When I have thought of it, however, and with no reputation to protect anyway, I’ve remembered my brief career as a painter-by-numbers with affection.

The more so now, since I’ve encountered this tribute to Dan Robbins, the man who invented paint-by-numbers. I did not know this history of the thing. In the photograph Mr. Robbins looks like a thoroughly likable man who is enjoying a good joke. Having a taste for parody myself, I like the fact that his invention started as parody, but ended up just being damned fun for a lot of people.

I also did not know that Andy Warhol had paid homage to the paint-by-numbers phenomenon. I have cautious respect for Warhol and a certain appreciation for his work, though I haven’t an inkling as to how silkscreening works. I have found on occasion that mention of Warhol can elicit expressions of loathing by serious artists, some of which seem oriented as much toward things he said as toward things he did. I’m not competent nor inclined to take a position in these interesting discussions.

warhol paint by numbers

[From BBC Front Row, “Transmitting Andy Warhol” linked by Jonathan Jones] Andy Warhol, Do it Yourself (Seascape), 1962 © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / ARS New York / DACS London.

With respect and affection, however, I salute Dan Robbins, dead at 93, for inciting my own pale practice of “robotic repetition and unoriginality.”

(c) 2019 JMN.

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“Perverse Obliqueness”

Brexit defies me as much as my native political scene defies me. Anomalies aside, I find here a stretch of forceful writing to savor for language’s sake. I came to attention from “carapace” forward. What follows illumines for me something I see darkly in my own looking glass. “If this be Englishness,” I mused with perverse pride, “the shoe ruefully fits me.”

Undoubtedly, there was a certain fury in many people’s minds, but the carapace of irony and self-deprecation that obscured it brought to mind one of the ingrained aspects of national identity pointed out by the social anthropologist Kate Fox. In her classic book “Watching the English,” she writes about the deep layers of performance and self-mockery that smother even heartfelt misery and anger: “Even if you are feeling desperate, you must pretend to be only pretending to feel desperate.”

More generally, she talks about “perverse obliqueness”, “emotional constipation” and a “general inability to engage in a direct and straightforward fashion with other human beings”.

(John Harris, “Petitions and jokes will not halt this march into Brexit calamity,” The Guardian, 4-1-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

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