Sumer is icumen in

I posted this years ago on the old blog, but as the solstice approaches, I have been thinking of it and thought I would trot it out again.

The Hilliard Ensemble sings the earliest known example of six-part polyphonic song, one of the major hits of the 13th century – the first of exactly two periods in which the world was knocked off its pins by English music. I think it still stands up well.

 

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Pes:
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

 

In Modern English:

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag leaps,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now.

Pes:
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

(There is some controversy over the translation of uerteth. An alternative, favoured by the scatologically inclined, is that the stag is farting. This is an amusing idea, I suppose, but neatly destroys the parallelism of action in the line, and I find myself compelled to disfavour it.)

André-Philippe Gagnon, a cast of thousands

I mean to say, of course, that André-Philippe Gagnon is a cast of thousands. The Beloved Other and I went last night to see him in concert. I had seen him once before, in the early nineties; for her, it was a new discovery.

And what a discovery! He began the performance with a one-man history of rock & roll, impersonating singers from Elvis Presley to CeeLo Green. His star turn was a duet between Céline Dion (herself, on video) and Frank Sinatra (André-Philippe, live).

Here, by the magic of YouTube, are some highlights of his show, as performed in a different (and rather more posh) venue:

Visit André-Philippe Gagnon’s website.

International Tongue-Twister Day

Hat tip to The Passive Voice.

In honour of the day, TPV commenter Antares proposes this ditty:

The deplorable redemption of bebop

Some time ago, my poppets, I instructed you in the gentle art of killing art forms in a piece entitled ‘Death by Bebop’. Those of you who read it (or clicked through just now) will recall that I made a particular corpus vile of jazz, and an especial example of ‘Take Five’, by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

That composition very nearly upset our lovely little applecart. Fortunately, after a smashingly musical opening in 5/4 time, the soloists swiftly degenerate into the indistinguishable pabulum of vaguely rhythmic noodling that has made latter-day jazz so detestable to all right-thinking people, McStudges as well as humans.

The natural solution to this is to combine the head of ‘Take Five’ with the heads of other compositions in the same signature, and transposable into the same key; and to play the whole, not as jazz, but as a properly composed piece, scored rigorously throughout. This has often been tried, and done badly, by mashing up the Brubeck noise with the theme from Mission: Impossible. So long as it is done badly, by persons of little talent, it matters not to us.

But no art form is ever dead quite beyond resurrection. We must strive continually to keep them dead. This we do by shutting out the skilful and interesting artists, and admitting none but giftless and footling plodders. Every so often, a human of real ability stumbles into a field that we would leave barren, and makes it yield fruit in our despite.

So it is with this mashup business. A human who calls himself Jake Justice has done it well; and for this he must pay. Behold, my junior McStudges, and judge for yourselves the danger we are in even now:

This nuisance must cease forthwith.

     (signed)
     H. Smiggy McStudge
          Deputy Commissar of Music Depreciation (Pro Tem)

More trees!

Hat tip to The Passive Voice, who says:

An Adobe commercial from 2013 that one commentator has compared to the current state of publishing.

Sounds painfully accurate to me.

In other news, I made good only 700 words on the Orchard yesterday. Going over the notes and plans and getting up to speed on the story takes time, alas. Also, my new medication for the neuralgia makes me sleep longer hours than normal. I think it’s called Ami-Trip-To-Zombie-Land.

On a lighter note…

From 1968, George Coe does Ingmar Bergman, and only one of them comes out alive.

If you watch closely, you’ll see Madeline Kahn in her first film role. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the Swedish language dying of embarrassment, eight years before the Muppets disinterred the corpse for their own nefarious purposes.

‘Vengeance’ revisited

A follow-up to my recent squib, ‘A case of vengeance’:

No doubt one reason why Flyspeck Flivverpuff was so happy to hear suicide recommended as a sure ticket to Hell was that, in fact, this was a lie. It may be – it probably is – that anyone who is absolutely Hell-bent on going to Hell will find a way to get there; and the Spanish swordsman of the story probably got what he had coming to him. But it is not, in fact, and never has been the teaching of the Church, (that is, of the Ordinary Magisterium), that suicides go to Hell automatically. The unnamed interloper was badly misrepresenting the teaching of the Church, as you would expect from someone that Flivverpuff himself suspected of having had words put in his mouth by one of his fellow devils.

Paragraph 2283 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

Paragraph 2281 makes it clear that suicide is a grave sin, and indeed combines several sins in one:

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

But this does not make it unforgivable or beyond the range of God’s mercy. Jimmy Akin, the well-known Catholic apologist, speaks eloquently on the issue in this video:

(Why Salazar went to Hell, on the other hand, we shall probably never know. We may suspect that it had little to do with whatever offence caused the swordsman to seek infinitely repeated revenge upon him. So extreme and disordered a desire is not usually bestowed upon an appropriate object. Of course, if Salazar had not been in Hell, Flivverpuff’s ‘customer’ would have had an entirely different punishment laid out for him: the doom of knowing that he had made an irreparable blunder, and his quarry was beyond his grasp for ever.)

Hope that helps. A merry Third Day of Christmas to all.

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence.

There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story.

Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

What happens next

Some months ago, I read a rather sad and disturbing piece about a professor of Creative Writing at an English university (not Oxbridge). This fellow opined that his discipline was basically useless, because while prose style could be taught and learnt, he did not believe that anybody could teach the idea of story.

I think it was Ursula K. LeGuin who said something rather similar, if less fatalistic, on the other side of the pond. She said that in working with young would-be writers, she found that while many of them had an excellent grasp of style and mechanics, not one in a hundred had a feel for story – what made a good one and how to construct it.

I find this very odd. Perhaps these modern and sophisticated people have not had the advantage of being mired in ignorance and tradition as children, as I had, or (a much better example) G. K. Chesterton. We were fairly steeped in stories when we were small, and nakedly unsophisticated stories, too. There are more lessons for fiction writers in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ or ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ than on many a university campus. Since it seems unfair that wealth and education should be so unfairly disadvantaged, in comparison of poverty and stupidity, I shall offer to share my widow’s mite with the world.

A story (said I, in my most foolishly sententious tones) is a machine for communicating What Happens Next. A successful story is one which makes the reader, listener, or viewer care What Happens Next, and stick around with bated breath awaiting the outcome.

To demonstrate these propositions, I enlist the help of that celebrated storyteller, Kermit the Frog:

Here we see all the crucial elements of a good story in their most basic and unadorned form.

1. We have a character (Kermit) who wants to accomplish something, and is taking action to do so.

2. We have an expectation of how the thing is to be accomplished (the What Happens Next machine).

3. Things go wrong. What actually happens next is not what was supposed to happen next. Our character becomes unhappy and frustrated, but perseveres. We like and admire him for keeping on in the face of adversity. More to the point, if he gave up, he would never get to see What Happens Next, and neither would we.

It is important, at this stage, that what actually happens next should bear some kind of relevance to what we expected to happen. If it doesn’t, we have lost the thread of the story. To take an even simpler example than Kermit’s, we expect that two and two will make four; but even this can go wrong. It can go wrong in a way that naturally lends itself to a story: ‘Two plates and two plates only make three plates, because it was too many to carry and I broke one.’ It is the wrong answer, or an unexpected answer, but we can see how it is related to the expected one. Or it can go wrong in a way that is purely arbitrary, which is the death of story: ‘Two plates and two plates make – oh, look! Squirrel!’

Eschew the latter.

4. Eventually, we have a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes this will be what is called a Happy Ending. In this particular case, it is a tragedy with an O. Henry twist, as Kermit winds up losing his radio to the very machine he created to switch it on.

But there is no doubt that the story is concluded. The ‘slingshot ending’ beloved of modern littéraires, which leaves the outcome firmly in question, is a monkey trick, a piece of over-elaborate hackwork. It worked once – in ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’ – when the whole point of the story was to startle the reader with an intriguing novelty. It was never likely to work again, except on persons who had never seen the trick done the first time; for novelty was the only thing it had to offer. Sometimes the trick will work as a joke ending, if the setup has been sufficiently complicated to keep the audience from expecting it. The film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels had such an ending; but the ending was also a sight gag, and perfectly fitted the style and theme. It would have been disappointing to see the lead characters succeed, for they were bumbling fools who had never done anything right so far; it would have been heartbreaking to see them fail, for they were likeable bumbling fools. Better to go out with a laugh, by leaving them literally hanging in mid-air.

The art of storytelling, say I, can be divided into two parts. One is figuring out what actually happens next, and how it is in conflict with what was supposed or expected to happen. This is largely a matter of plotting; though it can be done in picaresques, and vignettes, and other plotless works – which is why story and plot are not the same thing. The second part is causing the audience to take a lively and abiding interest in finding out what happens next, so they will not put the book down, change the channel, or bury a battle-axe in the skald’s unworthy skull. That is a matter of Art, and too long for Kermit to go into.

The role of the Agent

As portrayed with eerie accuracy by John Belushi in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.