Friday, March 23, 2007

What am I doing here?

I started this blog the other day when my friend Paul asked me if I ever write about things we were talking about. Here is a brief of the topics:
Evan Parker's (sax) Conic Sections
Yoshikazu Iwamoto, the shakuhachi flute--L'Esprit du Silence & L'Esprit du Vent on Musique du Monde
The Long March, 2-cd set by Archie Shepp and Max Roach.
John Cage, Music for Marcel Duchamp, the Freeman Etudes, & the Etudes Australes
Charles Ives' Second Piano Sonata: Concord, Mass. 1840-1860
Lester Young's tenor solo on When You're Smiling with the Teddy Wilson group, vocal by Billie Holiday
Charlie Parker's alto solo on Embraceable You
Coleman Hawkins tenor solo on Body and Soul, 1939
Ben Webster solo on Cottontail, with the Ellington orchestra
Sidney Bechet soprano solo on Shag
Johnny Dodds clarinet solo on Wolverine Blues with Jelly Roll Morton & Baby Dodds
The Armstrong-Hines duet on Weather Bird
The Bix-Tram duet on You Took Advantage of Me, with the Whiteman orchestra

And the ensemble work of the following:
Jelly Roll Morton et al on Black Bottom Stomp
The Eddie Condon gang on Love is Just Around the Corner, in particular the cl solo by Pee Wee Russell,
The Lang-Venuti group on Someday Sweetheart, Beale Street Blues, Farewell Blues, & After You've Gone with Bennie Goodman and Jack Teagarden
To which, Paul: Have you ever written about any of these?

Me: This blog. But I start with Aeschylus since I am just now addressing him in a class. The blog is what it is, a little writing about stuff. So, what do I know...? Not much, as they say, but I do have a fair number of handout texts I have prepared for classes, and some art I can bring up, andits likely to be both a disorganized and an unorganized look at things I am now teaching, have taught, might teach, and that I happen to be looking at when I post to the blog.

So, why did I start out with Aeschylus? Simply because I am thinking about it now.
Here, for example:
Aeschylus' use of language in the Oresteia can be described only as extraordinary. Dense, ambiguous, and experimental, especially in the choral odes, it poses exceptional difficulties for audience and translator alike. His style is rich with striking and often mixed metaphors, vivid imagery, and complex periphrases that sometimes make ordinary events strange and almost inaccessible. The poet invents new words (especially compound adjectives), borrows obscure ones, and fractures ordinary syntax. Long sentences of loosly linked clauses alternate with occasional pithy nuggets of traditional wisdom. Sentence fragments or sentences that shift construction midway abound in the choral odes. (Helene P. Foley, Introduction to Peter Meineck's 1998 translation of the Oresteia from Hackett Publishing Co.)

Foley continues by quoting Anne Lebeck's The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure (Harvard U Press, 1971):
It should be a basic principle in interpreting Aeschylus that when language and syntax are most difficult, the poet has compressed the greatest number of meanings into the smallest possible space. Pursuing the customary methods of classical scholarship one is sometimes tempted to treat ambiguity as if the author were at fault, as if the clarity of normal diction were beyond his grasp. Yet that ambiguity characteristic of Aeschylus is not easy to achieve: it comes about neither by accident or inability, but by design.
Commentaries on the Oresteia sometimes degenerate into arguments about the "right" meaning of passages where wording is enigmatic and meaning multiple. The following approach is here pursued: when argument arises over meaning, the statement that claims to be exclusively right is categorically wrong. The philologist should not restrict himself to a single interpretation of such passages but should give free rein to all possibilities and associations, ultimately selecting as many as form part of a larger pattern and contribute to the meaning of the total work. The linguistic devices by which ambiguity is effected should be analyzed and the significance of the passage then interpreted in light of its obscurity (p. 3).
Ambiguity, I tell my students, is where interpretation begins. If you don't understand something, that's a good place to start--especially if you want to learn more. I would never have them start with Aeschylus--some of what I have been writing about here addresses my decision to teach it or not to teach it. It is just too terrific, too terrible, for most of them in an introductory course. Stick to Homer, the lyric poets, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, that sort of thing.

Which somehow brings me back to why this blog. Those last two sentences of Lebeck's are inspiring.