Tag Archives: beauty

Not only may I be old, I may also be a music snob

Shortly after I posted yesterday’s piece about being a nearly-thirty-year-old living with undergrads, my fifth roommate appeared. Within fifteen minutes of arrival, he had hooked up his laptop to the speakers in the common area and cranked the music uber-loud. Then he disappeared.

This is the sort of thing of which I highly disapprove, regardless of the music. You could be cranking the Beatles or Tallis or Gordon Lightfoot or Puccini — if you’re absent, don’t make others listen to your music choice. It’s bad form.

But … well …

I’d be okay listening to the Beatles or Tallis or Gordon Lightfoot or Puccini.

But the monstrosity that Konrad unleashed.

I would never gladly listen to this.

And when my oppressor is not even present. So much worse.

And what is it that so offends my old, fuddy-duddy ears?

It’s electronic of some sort.

I mean, electronic music need not be bad. It’s come a long way since 1980s synth music. Some of it is not only tolerable but even pleasant.

But this.

It is repetitive with heavy bass. The same three bars are repeated over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over over and over and over. And then a new three or maybe five bars are chosen.

And all of them have the exact same bass line, which is primarily what I hear. The tempo is always the same. The volume never varies. There is hardly anything worthy of the name ‘melody’, and what melody there is just repeats itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself itself.

I, on the other hand, after a while, when I washed my mug for the night and realised new flatmate’s lack of presence, shut the common room door and my bedroom door and retreated to my room.

Wagner — Parsifal mit Placido Domingo.

Well worth hearing.

Again and yet again then even, if I wish, again.

Note the variation in the repetition of the above.

Repetition with variation helps created meaning, helps keep the mind from numbing, dulling, screaming in agony, ‘Good Lord, will this hellish pseudo-music ever stop?!’

And Wagner — he’s the master of creative repetition, the king of the leitmotiv that runs through an entire opera, yet never gets stale. He even wrote an opera that never resolves until the very end. And when you consider how long Wagnerian operas are, that is impressive.

But beyond the leitmotivs, beyond the meaningful repetitions, are the many different voices, different tempos, different musical instruments, different volumes, different harmonies, different melodies that populate an opera, the richness of human voices combined with the vast variety of a symphonic orchestra.

It is magnificent without being what some people consider the aural assault of my friend Alessandro Striggio. It is exquisite like a diamond.

And even simpler music, such as Gregorian Chant, has more variety and beauty than that audible poo streaming from the stereo.

My hatred for this music was only increased, of course, at 3:00 AM when it awoke me. If this were Purgatory, I’d know it. Would that I were not stuck in the Inferno …

My name is Matthew. And I am an ageing music snob.

Books As Objects: Including Reminiscences of Oxford & London, in Which Places I Saw Books

After two weeks of research in Oxford, I stopped off in London Friday night until my train whisked me back home to Edinburgh last night at 1700. Whilst in London, I spent the night at James’s and Saturday afternoon with Katie, Kai, and Dave. On Saturday morning, James and I walked along the South Bank of the Thames to Lambeth Palace where I went to the fabulous exhibit, ‘Royal Devotion’, about the history of the Book of Common Prayer, whose most popular edition, that of 1662, celebrates 350 years this year (with much less fervour than the KJV of 1611 of last year).

James asked me if I had ever thought of work in the business world. I said I hadn’t, really, except for a couple of small business ideas I’ve had. One was simply to open up a used bookshop. The other was Scriptorium, which would primarily focus on printing using antique or replica printing presses. We’d print books, posters, invitations, business cards, and do it with style, all old-school like. James wanted to know if there is a real difference in old techniques of printing. I said that there is, because, unlike modern litho, older printing actually prints on the page, which gives the printed book a literally different feel (and also a different aesthetic).

To demonstrate this tactile difference between the generations of printed books, I pulled out my 1939 edition of selected Essays by G K Chesterton, published by Collins. I opened it randomly to a page and got James to feel it. You can actually feel where the type pressed the book when it printed the words. You see — printing press. As it turns out, just re-feeling the book now, my 1939 Chesterton Essays is not the most pressed book out there. I have some old sheet music that is more dramatically pressed by far. But it made the point.

James had to leave at Lambeth, necessity drawing him to Jason’s wedding that afternoon. I paid admission to the exhibit, about which I had read in History Today where it was lauded as the best exhibit in London at present. I was very impressed. There were mediaeval breviaries and Books of Hours, as well as early printed missals. A copy of Quignon’s breviary was there as well, a book that stood as the precursor in many ways to Cranmer’s reformed Office. We had early Lutheran liturgies and Queen Mary’s mid-16th-century printing of Sarum on display; copies of every edition of the Prayer Book (1549, 1552, 1558, 1562, 1662 as well as the Scottish 1637) and the developing services, from the first English liturgy (the Litany) to the services of ordination; and there was the first Mohawk Prayer Book, a Diamond Jubilee Prayer Book from 1897, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s own copy of the Coronation service from 1953 as well as from the wedding of Will and Kate last year.

Outside of being testaments to the development of the liturgy over time — which they were, and which a student of liturgy would love to see in detail, from Sarum to Quignon to the Lutherans to Cranmer to his successors to Baxter’s attempts at a Puritan liturgy to New Zealand and North America — these books were objects. Beautiful objects like Richard III’s illuminated Book of Hours or the massive 1662 BCP in pride of place.

They are also useable and used objects. In a Breviary on display, in the Kalendar, Sts Damasus and Silvester had the word papa scratched out from beside their names. Another had two pages open where every saints day was crossed out by black Xs. There were handwritten rubrics by William Laud. There was a pre-1662 Prayer Book full of annotations for the new Prayer Book and sealed by the bishops’ seals. There was a Prayer Book with part cut out and a new prayer written in its place on the facing page. There was a prayer in the very hand of Queen Anne for the monarch’s protection.

Books are objects.

That afternoon with Katie, Kai, and Dave, I saw the treasures on display at the British Library. There was St Cuthbert’s Gospel of John, a manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and a beautiful illuminated Life of St Cuthbert by Bede. There were illuminated manuscripts from around the world — the Golden Haggadah in Hebrew, the intricacies of Islamic geometric illumination, many Bibles and Books of Hours, an illuminated Armenian book of saints’ lives, and a fantastically illuminated Ethiopian copy of Revelation.  Two Wycliffite Bibles were on display, and there, on the back of a birthday card, were the lyrics to ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’

In a digital age, words have ceased being things in our minds. They are not inscribed, not carefully inked, not pressed. With the flash of a finger, the backspace key can eliminate them for eternity. Yet words and literature, poetry and prose, have tended historically to have been preserved from one hand to another, one age to another, in books. And books are objects.

They can be beautiful, as I so happily observed yesterday. And so these exhibits were a fitting close to two weeks of daily work with a manuscript from the 1100s, with a book that a scribe or two (I think at least two based on the variation in hands between start and finish, plus whoever the corrector was) wrote in brown and black ink on the skin of several goats. In red, every new item was announced to the reader. Each important section was set out from the rest with a littera notabilior in red or blue ink, the practice of writing the first letter much larger than the rest (occasionally continued today). I loved it.

Perhaps I shall go on about my love of mediaeval books later, however.

Nonetheless, a book is an object. In an age of Kindles and Kobos, of PDFs and printouts, of archive.org and Google Books, in an age of perfect and terrible cover art, we have an image of the word as unfleshed. To us, the words are unmediated, and we think there is no difference between a PDF and a Kindle or a new Oxford World’s Classic and an old one. But there is. And the objectified reality of the printed book, especially in the beauty of old ones, reminds us who prefer the book daily that all literature and human thought comes to us through a medium of one sort or another.

Therefore, why not make the medium beautiful? Such was the goal of our forebears. For the literature in a book is not like a cheap whore to be tossed aside at the end of reading. It will stay with you forever. It should be mulled over again and again. I have many a time reread ‘On Lying in Bed.’ My greatest enjoyment was in the 1939 Collins edition of Chesterton’s selected Essays that I showed James yesterday morning on the way to Lambeth Palace.