Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Farewell, Liam

The great Irish piper Liam O'Flynn has died, according to RTÉ and other sources.

I owe my interest in Irish music directly to O'Flynn, whose uilleann piping on Planxty's "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór" from their debut album released in 1973 caught my ear when I heard it on the old Pacifica Radio program Echoes from Tara.
With their long hair, Balkan time signatures, and exotic bouzoukis, Planxty were a fairly radical group within Irish music when they started out, but no matter how far they strayed O'Flynn was always there to give them trad cred. He once said, of his fiendishly difficult instrument:
The old pipers used to say that it takes twenty-one years to make a piper: seven years of learning, seven years of practicing and seven years of playing. I think there's a lot of truth to that because it's a complex instrument and requires a lot of co-ordination to play a tune. You're learning all the time.
Below is another clip of Liam and Planxty, from a reunion concert in 2004, with O'Flynn playing a set of pipes that formerly belonged to another great piper, Willie Clancy.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


Mario Vargas Llosa, on the composition of his 1969 novel Conversación en La Catedral, which is set in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría (1948-1956):
I knew that I wanted to write a novel about the dictatorship of Odría, which was more corrupt and corrupting than violent, although there was violence as well. The story that I wanted to tell was how a dictatorship of that nature infiltrates itself into private life in order to destroy relationships between parents and children, to destroy a vocation, to frustrate people. I wanted to show how a dictatorship winds up demoralizing even those who have a good core, who have natural decency. If a good person wants to advance in that world, he finds himself obliged to make moral, civic, and political concessions. I wanted to relate how that affected all levels of society: the oligarchy, the tiny middle-class sector, but also the popular sectors. I was interested in portraying a society in which political dictatorship has an effect on activities that are at the furthest remove from politics: family life, professional life, people's vocations. The political infects everything and creates a kind of deviation within the hearts of families and the citizens themselves that would never have existed without the corrupting force of political power.
The passage above is from Conversación en Princeton con Rubén Gallo, a book that presents a series of discussions carried out a few years ago between Vargas Llosa, Professor Rubén Gallo, and a group of Princeton University students. The bulk of the book is made up of detailed exchanges revolving around four of Vargas Llosa's novels and his memoir A Fish in the Water. The book was published in 2017 and hasn't appeared yet in English (it undoubtedly will at some point), so the above rough translation is mine.

Vargas Llosa, now in his eighties, has had a long career as a novelist, critic, and politician (he ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990), and there have been ups and downs along the way. All of that is a story for another day, but he remains intellectually a force to be reckoned with, even, or perhaps especially, when I think he is wrong.

Conversación en La Catedral, which is readily available in an imperfect but readable English version by Gregory Rabassa, is Vargas Llosa's third, and I believe longest, novel. There's no "cathedral," except as the name of a bar in Lima where the long conversation that serves as a framing device takes place. One party in this dialogue is Santiago Zavalla, a thirty-something déclassé journalist from an upper-middle-class family; the other is his family's former chauffeur, Ambrosio, whom he has just run into by chance. The narration is largely made up of an intricate web of flashbacks, and the characters range widely over Peru's social classes (though not its Quechua- or Aymara-speakers). Vargas Llosa deliberately uses techniques that keep the reader off-balance, interspersing scenes that take place years apart, sometimes in the same paragraph or sentence, so that seeming non sequiturs uttered in one chapter may not take on full significance until much later. The bewilderment the reader experiences, at least initially, is not unintended by the author, who has referred to the book as a rompecabezas: a jigsaw-puzzle. He has said that its writing caused him the most difficulty of any of his books, but it may well be his greatest achievement.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Borrowed Time

I'm climbin' this ladder,
My head in the clouds
I hope that it matters,
I'm havin' my doubts.

I'm watchin' the skaters
Fly by on the lake.
Ice frozen six feet deep,
How long does it take?

I first heard this song one evening in 1977 while browsing in the old St. Mark's Book Shop in the East Village, a few blocks away from where I was living at the time, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. That the melody was lifted (although only in part) from the Rolling Stones' "Lady Jane" was obvious even to me, but Young's song (which openly owned up to the appropriation) seemed direct and affecting where the faux-Renaissance "original" struck me as just affected. You take your inspiration from wherever you can get it.

I didn't hear "Borrowed Tune" again for years; for a long time I didn't even know that it was called "Borrowed Tune," nor what album it had appeared on. I knew some of Neil Young's records fairly well; then as now I've had mixed feelings about him in general, enjoying a lot of his music without ever quite buying into the whole mystique. (This tends to be my default attitude.)

Eventually I came across a copy of Young's Tonight's the Night on CD, and there it was. For those not familiar with the story, Young recorded most of that album in 1973 in the aftermath of the drug overdoses of two friends, one a fellow musician named Bruce Whitten and the other a roadie named Bruce Berry; it wasn't released, however, until 1975. It was ragged, dark, and commercially unpromising, full of references to death and drugs; even in "Borrowed Tune" Young sings of being "wasted" while he composed it. I'm not alone in liking it as much as anything he's ever done, but it clearly wasn't destined for AM radio.

When I listen to "Borrowed Tune" now, every now and then, something in it takes me back forty years and still lives. The qualities that first caught my ear, its plaintiveness, its vulnerability, its uneasy serenity (I don't think that's an oxymoron, in this case), have endured through time — but at the same time I know that other ears might find nothing there at all, or just dismiss it as old news, one more pathetic drug-addled product of post-hippie burnout. But that's how one's moments in time are: irreducible, non-transferable, not valid for tender or exchange. The ones that mean something never quite go away.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Hiking in the woods in a steady February drizzle is understandably not everyone's idea of fun, but it does have its upside. For one thing, you'll be unbothered by crowds. Except for a young couple treading on the ice of a pond that probably wasn't all that safe, and that at the very beginning of the walk, I saw no one. The human world fell away, except for the stone wall remnants of another era.

In the mist, the green of the mosses and lichens seemed to deepen, forming a muted palette with the stones and brown leaves that might be less evident on a clearer day.

I half-expected to hear spring peepers, but it must be too early still. In compensation, I spotted a screech owl peering warily from a nest box. It wasn't what I went looking for at all, which is, of course, the best part.

Saturday, January 27, 2018


Miscellaneous midwinter finds. Above, snail shell (untenanted). Below, Trametes betulina, lichen and fungus, frost on woodpecker hole, wild turkeys, stone.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018


Colin Sackett's Uniformagazine is a pamphlet-sized quarterly, published in the UK, that ranges eclectically over various themes, but especially the intersections of landscape, human activity, and memory. Most of its contributors are unknown to me. In issue No. 3, published in Spring–Summer 2015, Ian Waites revisits the publicly funded council estate where he grew up, finding a zone that has been deregulated and privatized to the point that it is no longer the center of anything that might be called a community:
I went back to the estate to photograph my playground only to find that it had all gone. The slide, the swings and the roundabout had all been removed, leaving behind a set of modern yet suddenly ancient earthworks: concentric circles of grass, concrete and disintegrating synthetic playsurfacing. Once there were roundabouts, and children who were given the chance to play in a changed society that valued social democracy, progress and community. But now all we are left with are archaeological traces of a future that was never quite allowed to come off, and which only I seem to notice. These earthworks act like conduits in space and time, carrying me back to my childhood, and to this estate as it was in its hey-day.
Ian Waites, "Once there were roundabouts," Uniformagazine No. 3.

Uniformbooks has published Waites's related book, Middlefield: A postwar council estate in time.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Meetings with Remarkable Sheep

By longstanding custom, the origins of which are murky, part of every New Year's Eve is devoted to paying social calls on local livestock. A brief proclamation is read, a few hasty carols sung, and the sheep tolerate the proceedings with benign indifference.