The Uses of Cliche

I’ve done a lot of writing for the game Battle For Wesnoth. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.

Wesnoth is a fantasy-themed game, and I’ve worked quite hard at bringing the prose in Wesnoth up to the standard of the better grade of fantasy novel. But I have to deal constantly with the fact that Wesnoth is not a novel – it’s a battle game, and the text occurs in rather small dollops as narrative decoration around battles. The purpose of the game is to present those battle scenarios in an appealing and involving way, not to present a work of literature in which there happen to be embedded tactical puzzles.

One consequence is that writing for Wesnoth is rather like constructing a ship in a bottle. You have to be ruthlessly economical with your prose, because the form and the players won’t tolerate expository lumps – or, really, any kind of lump. You must routinely accomplish a great deal in a very few words. I find meeting this sort of artistic challenge very satisfying when I can pull it off; in one example that I’m particularly proud of, I wrote a love scene emotionally powerful enough to make my wife cry in four lines of dialogue (Kalenz and Cleodil in The Legend of Wesmere; you’ll know it when you see it).

Another consequence of the hard constraints on length of exposition is that cliche is your friend. When you’re scene-painting with so few words, you have to rely on the reader’s interpretive context for the work and evoke the reader’s pre-existing ideas about and images of elves, orcs, undead and so forth, rather than trying to create novel ones. Too much originality is actually dangerous; it risks leaving players puzzled and stranded in a secondary world they suddenly find they lack the information to understand.

Creativity is certainly possible under these constraints, but it has to be additive and incremental. For example, my campaign The Hammer of Thursagan begins with Dwarves that are very much ANSI standard and never tries to subvert or reject that Tolkien-derived cliche – but it does explore some ideas about Dwarvish society (the role of loremasters) and psychology (the revulsion against masking and deception, the terror of being outcast) that add levels of complexity and non-human nuance to that cliche.

And, unashamedly, I steal from good sources in order to enhance the player’s experience. For example, the description I wrote for the death of the lich Mal-Ravanal at the end of Eastern Invasion consciously echoes the death of Sauron in The Return of The King. The imagistic and emotional parallel is a tool with which I make that scene more powerful, more resonant, for anyone who has read the Tolkien and half-remembers it. I had to do it that way, because I couldn’t spend the wordage required to produce a powerful and original death scene!

The visual art for Wesnoth has similar qualities. Some of it is quite lovely and striking, but very little of it is actually surprising. Likewise the music, which (like the film scores it strongly resembles) is thoroughly situated within genres comfortable to the listener’s ear rather than avant-garde. Like the prose, the visual art and music are support elements for gameplay rather than than ends in themselves; too much originality would be distracting, and would demand a kind of cognitive effort from players that they didn’t really sign up for. They have battles to win and puzzles to solve!

We’re all so marinated in the 20th-century idea that good art is required to challenge one’s preconceptions and be original that it is perhaps difficult for to receive this sort of deliberately derivative work as art at all. But it’s worth remembering that standalone art intended primarily to express the artist’s personal creativity is a very recent idea, not actually fully developed until the collapse of aristocratic patronage at the end of the 19th century and the “back to zero” impulse of modernism in the early 20th.

In most cultures at most times, quotation and bricolage have been as important to artists, or far more important, than individual creativity. Art was tied to and primarily generated for non-artistic purposes – as an evocative device for religions, as decoration for craft objects and architecture, as a peacock-tail display tactic for the wealthy and powerful. Individual creativity was restrained, additive, and incremental; as in Wesnoth, too much originality would have separated art from its purposes and alienated its audience.

It isn’t Wesnoth that is exceptional, it’s art-for-art’s sake. That stance depends on the existence of a specialized audience of aesthetes who are willing to value and consume art-for-art’s sake, detached from any of the purposes that are historically normal for art. Which is all very well, except when art-for-art’s sake decides that it owns the whole domain and that the entire pre-modern history of art can be consigned to irrelevance. Some pretty noxious pathologies develop out of that, as I’ve previously discussed in Terrorism Becomes Bad Art and Deadly Genius and the Back-to-Zero Problem.

So, on the whole, I’m quite happy that Battle For Wesnoth is a functionally appealing pile of cliches, and quite willing to let my artistic ya yas out by pastiching Tolkien and Dunsany and Howard with the occasional flash of restrained creativity. The truth is I’d rather be part of that conversation than the one the art-for-art’s-sake aesthetes are having; the latter doesn’t seem to lead anywhere good.

235 thoughts on “The Uses of Cliche

  1. One of my favourite quotes, from the Italian-born MIT mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota:

    The idea of genius, elaborated by German romantics, is destructive; it is a night into fantasy. There is reason to believe we’ve killed classical music because of that idea. People think that they will be either geniuses like Beethoven or nothing. But look at the Baroque Age there were hundreds of little Italians who wrote good music and didn’t give a hoot about being creative.

  2. I’ve managed to offend ‘artists’ for years by saying that art *must* inculde communication.
    That at a bare minimum, one must be able to look at a piece of art and agree that the artist had something to say.
    If I also have some clue as to what they were trying to say, this is much better.

    For some reason, many ‘artists’ are infuriated by the above — it is *my* responsibility to understand them, not theirs to educate me.

    As you point out, much of ‘modern art’ leaves me with no clue as to what they were trying to do — other than perhaps sucker some fool into giving them money for something that the purchaser could lable as ‘art’. I’m pretty sure there’s quite a bit of that around.

    To me, if a piece of work that someone attempts to call ‘art’ doesn’t deliver at least a minimum amount of information, it fails.
    Music is harder to classify — I suppose that at a minimum, it should be pleasant to hear, and I am willing to put a bit more effort into discovering information — if it is pleasant to hear.

  3. @Charles Stewart:

    Classical music and much of european art was sponsored by aristocrats. It diminished with the decline of aristocracy. The “genius” idea that you quote is largely an elitist vision of “genius”. Many of these geniuses have become geniuses (according to this romantic vision) only after their death – when in their lifetimes they were very much shunned by the social circles that propagate this “genius” vision.

  4. And modern art is also build on cliches. But these are simple not shared with those of “us” (for most sets of us). A communication problem, indeed.

  5. @Uma: I partly agree, but Rota explicitly cites Beethoven who styled himself as a “heroic” musician and was adulated at the most productive period of his career.

  6. @uma
    “Classical music and much of European art was sponsored by aristocrats.”

    That does not hold up for late 19th century and early 20th century early music. In a list like Mahler, Wagner, Grieg, Shostakovitch, Sibelius, and Bartok all composed for the bourgeois. In another genre, opera always was real Italian pop music.

  7. @Winter:

    > That does not hold up for late 19th century and early 20th century early music

    19th and 20th century classical musicians do not measure up to Bethoven and Mozart.

    > Beethoven who styled himself as a “heroic” musician and was adulated at the most productive period of his career

    Some geniuses are ahead of their times. Others are in sync. In music the reaction/recognition is almost always immediate.

  8. @uma
    “19th and 20th century classical musicians do not measure up to Bethoven and Mozart. ”

    Add Bach, and you have the three greatest composers of all time, by a large margin. It is not fair to measure all the thousands of composers that have lived in Europe against them.

    And all those “lesser” artists have influenced our life quite considerably. It is very short sighted to dismiss Conan Doyle and Verne because they are not up to the level of Dickens.

  9. @Winter:

    > Add Bach, and you have the three greatest composers of all time, by a large margin

    Sure. 3 greatest european classical composers of all time I agree. I would not go on to declare them greatest classical composers of all time. Other regions of the world have far more sophisticated classical music than that of europe.

    > It is not fair to measure all the thousands of composers that have lived in Europe against them.

    I agree. But when we judge a phenomenon (classical music) we ought to judge by its greatest ever representatives and the environment that nurtured them – in this case aristocracy.

  10. >In a list like Mahler, Wagner, Grieg, Shostakovitch, Sibelius, and Bartok all composed for the bourgeois.

    I’m a huge fan of that late-Romantic, immediate pre-Modern era in music. You could add Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Mussorgsky to the list as parts of the last great creative flowering of what we now call “classical”, when composers reached out for a mass audience . It was an all-too-brief moment between the collapse of the patronage system and the Modernist collapse into avant-gardism.

  11. Much of your post is my approach to writing my Lands of Adventures series of tabletop roleplaying products.

    Back in the 70s Judges Guild released a series of products around the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. They were 17″ by 22″ maps of a Dungeons & Dragons setting.

    http://www.acaeum.com/jg/index.html
    http://www.acaeum.com/jg/Item0048.html

    Each hex had a number, there were 57 hex columns and 34 hex rows. About 1/3 of them had a locale with something interesting in it. Monster lair, village, city, ruin, even islands.

    To find out what it was you looked in a booklet, under a table that was indexed by the hex number. It told you the content. This allow a great deal of detailed information to be packed into the product compared to the travelogue format of the World of Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. However it was a format that didn’t see much development since the 70s.

    Flashforward thirty years and a couple of fans successfully revived the Wilderlands. The original booklets were too sparse in details for the market. So the original one or two line entries were expanded to a paragraph or two. Plus instead of the four separate booklet it was packed into 256 page software books and sold with the maps as a boxed set. I was one of the author contributing entries.

    http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=2745&it=1

    Because I had to pack as much information as I can into a four or five sentence paragraph, l relied a lot on on fantasy genre conventions and the conventions of Dungeons & Dragons. The dwarfareallalike trope was one of the ones I used. All my dwarven entries were written with classic image of dwarves in mind. And as I had to do nearly 300 entries (out of the 1200 for the entire project) I had to do this relentlessly.

    While I was proud of the work I did, the $70 price was a bit stiff for people to try this format of presenting roleplaying settings. So I successfully pitched a smaller size format based off of a 8.5 by 11 map to a publisher.

    Again while I didn’t have 300 entries to do I did have to come up with four interesting settings each described in one paragraph locales. And I did a second one as well.

    Despite my relentless use of genre tropes I feel I managed to come up with distinct settings filled with many interesting things for the players to do. One was a frontier, another a region ingulfed by civil war, a region that just was overrun by barbarians aka the fall of rome, two dealing with a home of a god, three dealing with the exploration of a new world with one like 17th atlantic seaboard, another the Caribbean, and the last like the shore of Mexico with an interior empire like the Aztecs although to switch it up I based more it on bronze age Assyria.

    All of these using just the core rule books of the oldest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. There is a lot you can do even with bog standard tropes if you put enough thought and creativity into it.

    To see what it is like I have two free PDF download
    Blackmarsh
    http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=89944

    Southland
    http://cdn.themis-media.com/media/global/images/articles/article/7928/SouthLand.pdf

    Note that Blackmarsh is an open gaming product free for anybody to use for commercial or non-commercial projects.

    Southmarsh

  12. >Other regions of the world have far more sophisticated classical music than that of europe.

    Questionable. Classical Indian music about matches European in sophistication and refinement of technique, but I wouldn’t say it’s “far more”; yes, its use of microtonality and intricate time signatures exceeds anything found in Europe, but its notions of harmony and counterpoint are crude and primitive compared to European achievements.

    It’s pretty hard to find anything else in world music that matches up to the classical European and Indian standard. Indonesian gamelan, maybe – I suspend judgment on that because I don’t understand its idiom well enough yet. Chinese classical music doesn’t make the grade; Western classical has largely displaced it even in China.

    Elsewhere there simply isn’t enough tradition of multi-instrumental playing in large ensembles to produce musical complexity anything like European or Indian classical; Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, gives us astonishing rhythmic intricacy but nothing else.

  13. @uma
    “I would not go on to declare them greatest classical composers of all time. Other regions of the world have far more sophisticated classical music than that of europe.”

    There is more music in the world. European classical music was a breed apart because it was the only written tradition. That resulted in a completely different evolution.

    @esr
    “I’m a huge fan of that late-Romantic, immediate pre-Modern era in music. You could add …”

    And many, many more (e.g. French like Ravel or the “nationalists” like Smetana).

    You should not think of classical music as dead. It just branched out into separate movements for different audiences. What is considered “Art Music” is simply produced for a completely different audience as the film and mass media artists, from Gershwin and Glen Miller to Presley, Beatles, and Vangelis. All modern music is based on a written tradition that goes back to the “official” classic music.

    Classical music lives on and is very vibrant, it is simply directed to a different audience and a different context. Just switch on a radio or open any music site. And just as always in history, most of what is produced will be forgotten in a few years.

  14. @esr:

    > Questionable. Classical Indian music about matches European in sophistication and refinement of technique, but I wouldn’t say it’s “far more”; yes, its use of microtonality and intricate time signatures exceeds anything found in Europe, but its notions of harmony and counterpoint are crude and primitive compared to European achievements.

    I would rank them as follows:
    1) Middle eastern (near east) 2) Indian 3) European 4) Chinese

    Middle-eastern classical music is miles ahead of european classical music.

  15. Questionable. Classical Indian music about matches European in sophistication and refinement of technique, but I wouldn’t say it’s “far more”; yes, its use of microtonality and intricate time signatures exceeds anything found in Europe, but its notions of harmony and counterpoint are crude and primitive compared to European achievements. … Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, gives us astonishing rhythmic complexity but nothing else.

    When you look at the psychological effect on the listening audience, rhythmic complexity is by far more effective than harmonic complexity. Bob Brozman has an interesting hypothesis on the use of rhythmic complexity as a function of culture.

  16. >Middle-eastern classical music is miles ahead of european classical music.

    I am skeptical, but open to learning. Can you point me at examples?

  17. @uma
    “I would rank them as follows: 1) Middle eastern (near east) 2) Indian 3) European 4) Chinese Middle-eastern classical music is miles ahead of european classical music.”

    Going beyond matters of taste, I think you underestimate the influence of a written tradition over an oral tradition. The sheer number off works available in the European tradition dwarves everything available in other traditions.

    Also, being able to see music in print has the same effect on music as the printing press had on oral literature.

    Note that I do not make any quality judgement. Just that the medium changes the message.

    (I do have strong preferences, but they are irrelevant in this discussion)

  18. This is somewhat off-topic, but i’m curious; do you ever play commercial games that (normally) run on windows or consoles? If not, why not, and if yes which are you favorites?

  19. >This is somewhat off-topic, but i’m curious; do you ever play commercial games that (normally) run on windows or consoles?

    There’s only one such game I’m really fond of: Civilization II. I still play it occasionally on our ten-year-old toilet-seat Mac.

  20. @Winter:

    > Going beyond matters of taste, I think you underestimate the influence of a written tradition over an oral tradition. The sheer number off works available in the European tradition dwarves everything available in other traditions.

    The middle east has a far more significant written tradition than Europe. For example, the largest epic poem ever produced was that one Arab tribe documenting its history. It is at a million verses of perfectly rhymed and metered prose. This is more than a 100 times the size of the Iliad of Homeros.

    In music, on of the biggest ever encyclopedias of music and singing is the 18 volume Aghani encyclopedia by Isfahani (A Persian from Esfahan) which compiles arabic music and songs from over a 1000 years ago and which is written in its own musical notation.

    The idea that europe has more “written tradition” over others is not true imho. What europe had was the printing press and the ability to disseminate written works faster than others. It wasn’t until much later on than the rest of the world caught up with the printing press.

  21. >>>Bob Brozman has an interesting hypothesis on the use of rhythmic complexity as a function of culture.<<<

    There might be an interesting hypothesis somewhere in there under all the multi-culti masturbation, but the whole article smacks of knee-jerk iconoclasm of exactly the type described in this blog post, albeit along a different vector, and the thesis is definitely at the level of hypothesis at best. I'm sure there could be an academic analysis made of the psychological significance of rhythm vs. harmony, but this ain't it.

    The saddest thing is that the polyrhythms he uses as examples are hardly unheard of in European music.

  22. For further reading seek out the classic “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. Directly inspired Star Wars and The Matrix, among others.

    This idea is also elegantly summed up by this quote:
    “Borges said there are only four stories to tell: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, the struggle for power and the voyage. All of us writers rewrite these same stories ad infinitum.”
    — Paulo Coelho

    Final note, it used to be that educated persons were expected to have read a defined list of books (The Cannon), precisely so they could speak to each other in short hand references, and play silly one upmanship can-you-spot-my-cryptic-reference games.

  23. > I am skeptical, but open to learning. Can you point me at examples?

    Examples include the Maqam traditional music of Iraq, Greater Syria, Turkey and Egypt which is centuries older than european classical music of europe and more sophisticated. I will post some examples if I can find on youtube.

  24. I regularly talk to small RPG publishers about “What sets your pseudo-Tolkein derivative fantasy apart from the other 40 of them that came out this month?”

    There is a narrow window between pounding the same old tropes past mush and being so avant-garde as to be incomprehensible. This also applies to rules systems…indeed, the current RPG market is now has Pathfinder (effectively D&D 3.75) selling about as well (or better) than D&D 4.0.

    D&D 4.0 is, in a lot of ways, a much cleaner -game-. It also managed to be a little bit too avant garde for the market that was already happy with the existing product base…

  25. There’s only one such game I’m really fond of: Civilization II.

    IMO the best of the series. Civ III brought in the resources system that (for me) ruins the game.

    The principle difference in system between the original and CivII was hit points. Reducing the number of times that tanks could be defeated by phalanxes was a welcome change.

  26. Final note, it used to be that educated persons were expected to have read a defined list of books (The Cannon), precisely so they could speak to each other in short hand references, and play silly one upmanship can-you-spot-my-cryptic-reference games.

    So it’s not just internet douchebags who do this with Portal, Mario and Inception?

    I wondered if the telos of modern internet culture was a group like the Tamarians of Star Trek (of “Darmok and Jalad” fame), only they are only able to communicate through meme phrases of a few words, and hastily-drawn MSPaint comics with stock facial expressions.

  27. > I’ve managed to offend ‘artists’ for years by saying that art *must* inculde communication.
    I agree. But I think that for it to be effective at that goal it must play by rules. Doesn’t matter if you make up the rules, as long as you define them clearly and then follow them carefully. Look at Picasso’s work. Cubism is a set of rules. You have to follow those rules, or else it’s not cubism.

    You can reject existing rulesets if you like, but then you must supply some new ones of your own making. That is my model of what artistic innovation is.

    Also, here’s a copy of the comment I just wrote here (http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=65&cpage=1#comment-306209) since it’s relevant to this discussion as well:

    As you said, there’s a some really good art which has been made along the “back to zero” train of thought (to your list I would add Captain Beefheart and Negativland,) but it also has some really bad imitators.

    Taking Beefheart as an example, a lot of people say his music is “just noise.” But that doesn’t give it the credit it deserves– there really is a lot of rigid structure there if you listen for it. It just doesn’t use existing musical vocabulary. Beefheart has his imitators, and most of them are awful. Those people mistakenly think his music is “just noise,” and they see that as a good thing worthy of imitation. At best, they can come up with a musical Rorschach test, which is expressive by coincidence, but they cannot be called good artists.

    I think that modernist art, at its finest, does not reject a need for rigid structure (just look at the geometrical patterns in Picasso’s work.) It’s just that it gets made with a willingness to explore *different* rigid structures.

  28. >Examples include the Maqam traditional music of Iraq, Greater Syria, Turkey and Egypt which is centuries older than european classical music of europe and more sophisticated. I will post some examples if I can find on youtube.

    Please do.

    I’ve been reading about maqam, and related genres like Turkish classical. The absence of harmony and counterpoint, and the handling of microtones, suggests that these genres entail a level of complexity very similar to that of Indian classical music, but share many of its limitations as well. There may be grounds for claiming roughly equal sophistication of theory and technique here (as there are for Indian classical) but I’m not seeing anything that says to me that this is a qualitatively richer tradition than European classical.

  29. @jeff, it comes down to signaling, right? If you want to be in the group you have to show that put the time into studying that group’s chosen material.

    And literature has been defining tribes since there has been literature.

    And stories and songs were probably defining tribes before we had language.

  30. Eric,

    We’re all so marinated in the 20th-century idea that good art is required to challenge one’s preconceptions and be original that it is perhaps difficult for to receive this sort of deliberately derivative work as art at all. But it’s worth remembering that standalone art intended primarily to express the artist’s personal creativity is a very recent idea, not actually fully developed until the collapse of aristocratic patronage at the end of the 19th century and the “back to zero” impulse of modernism in the early 20th.

    It is worth emphasizing that Battle for Wesnoth is a video game. Computer games, and perhaps demos, are the only form of art that I know of that hackers can uniquely give to the world, which is probably why Roger Ebert has been so vehemently opposed to lcassifying them as “art”. Accordingly, to make a good game, having a profound idea means close to bugger all, and execution is almost everything, much as was the case in classical art and music under the patronage system. Many are the games that have been released, that take a handful of well-established, time-worn tropes and combine them in a way that’s fun and engaging. And many are the games that are based on an innovative idea but have tediousand clunky controls, bugs, or other issues that prevent them from being enjoyed as games.

  31. @Jeff Read:
    …And few are the games that take a single gameplay idea (be it new or borrowed) and explore it to its last permutation. But those games are jewels.

  32. This idea is also elegantly summed up by this quote:
    “Borges said there are only four stories to tell: a love story between two people, a love story between three people, the struggle for power and the voyage. All of us writers rewrite these same stories ad infinitum.”
    — Paulo Coelho

    “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker enlarges this number to 7.

    He lists the seven plots as :-
    - Overcoming the Monster
    - Rags to Riches
    - The Quest
    - Voyage and Return
    - Comedy
    - Tragedy
    - Rebirth
    - The Dark Power

    A fair summary of which is on TV Tropes.

  33. “Elsewhere there simply isn’t enough tradition of multi-instrumental playing in large ensembles to produce musical complexity anything like European or Indian classical”

    One of the things I learned from my father (he was first clarinetist for the Detroit and Cleveland Symphony Orchestras decades ago) is that the highest, most sophisticated form of music is actually chamber music. That would include classical Indian music, string quartets and jazz….

    Yeah…I do like to hear 102 musicians working hard at the Eroica, too.

  34. The idea of a “Cannon” of works you have to be familiar with to be considered part of the in-group still exists in many different sub-cultures. For example a few months back ESR suggested possible contents for such a cannon for the Hacker sub-culture: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=2843. Most sub-cultures will have a similar cannons, though the nature of the items in the cannon may be very different. For example serious sports fans will nearly all be familiar with certain classic sporting moments*, either from watching recordings or from reading descriptions, and will naturally recognise someone who isn’t familiar with them as just not being into sports, and also sports commentators and writers will often reference them.

    There’s also more to most cannons then just signalling though. For example if you’re really into sports you obviously enjoy reading about or watching sporting events, and these would be what other fans consider the best examples of the genre, while the traditional “Western Cannon”/”Liberal Arts Education” was also intended to expose a person to the most important philosophical, scientific, and historic concepts and events.

    * I’m not into sport very much, so I couldn’t tell you what these are, but Time has some suggestions: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570820,00.html

  35. Um, it’s a Canon of literature. You read to the sound of the Canon. You ride to the sound of the cannons.

    Yours,
    Tom

  36. Sorry, but to me, if an art form has to say “if you have to have it explained, you ain’t gonna understand nohow” is the hallmark of High Art – and of its failure.

  37. Alex has been doing poly-rhythms on his French horn since, like, forever:
    > There might be an interesting hypothesis somewhere in there under all the multi-culti masturbation, but the whole article smacks of knee-jerk iconoclasm of exactly the
    > type described in this blog post, albeit along a different vector, and the thesis is definitely at the level of hypothesis at best.

    The hypothesis is pretty simple: you can make your music more interesting for the people listening to it by finding a good groove, working it and not getting carried away with how fast you can play a scale in the mixolydian mode. And while it may be hypothesis at best, it’s a hypothesis you can experiment with yourself, by, for example, listening to Bob Brozman demonstrate it on the guitar. Or if you think he’s no good, try playing it yourself. Then compare with, say, Last Night at the Proms or Andre Rieu.

    In short, I don’t think that Bob Brozman is the guy to pick to make your point. His career is built on the wholesale assimilation of different musical traditions and representing them in new combinations, with entirely recognisable roots. Dare one say that he lifts cliches from other musical cultures? Ever wondered what gypsy jazz sounds like on a National steel guitar? Bob Brozman has, and he can play it too. Except with a calypso feel. You can dance to it, too. I think that if you think Bob Brozman is the kind of modernist audience-abnegating, high-art worshipping, ideologically-driven Schoenbergite that Eric usually has in mind when he decides to edge this particular axe, then it’s pretty safe to say you haven’t listened to any of Bob Brozman’s music. Perhaps you read half a paragraph and suffered a knee-jerk iconoclasm?

  38. D&D 4.0 is, in a lot of ways, a much cleaner -game-. It also managed to be a little bit too avant garde for the market that was already happy with the existing product base…

    I think that’s actually the precise reason some of us dislike it so much–it’s a clean game. D&D has always been at least as much about storytelling as about rules, including the unique form of tall tale that is that one character over there. 4e is pencil-and-paper WoW–and if I wanted WoW, I’d play it with better graphics.

    (Don’t discount, however, licensing, oddly enough. 4e dropped the Open Gaming License, and the new Hasbro license allows Hasbro to unilaterally forbid anyone from publishing 4e supplemental materials–it’s the kind of now-that-you’re-successful-we’ll-buy-you-for-$1 threat 90s Microsoft would have slavered over.)

  39. What I immediately thought of upon reading this was the technique of remixing and sampling that has been growing in popularity since Umberto Eco started layering recordings from AM radio over tracks (I’m reasonably sure he was one of the first to do this). The place most people will have been exposed to this is modern hip-hop. Do you have any opinions on this more contemporary form of bricolage, Eric? There could be an interesting essay buried in here, describing hip-hop as an outgrowth of a long-standing historical tradition of deriving new work from novel combinations of elements already floating around in the aether. I find your general thesis, that art doesn’t necessarily have to be uber-original in order to be “art” (however nebulous that term may be) to be interesting, especially as a musician myself.

  40. >Sorry, but to me, if an art form has to say “if you have to have it explained, you ain’t gonna understand nohow” is the hallmark of High Art – and of its failure.

    Oh, no, Jay. You know better than this. We’ve had this conversation.

    There are people who just don’t seem to be temperamentally capable of grokking blues music. You ain’t going to tell me that’s “High Art”.

  41. >The place most people will have been exposed to this is modern hip-hop. Do you have any opinions on this more contemporary form of bricolage, Eric?

    Yes, but mostly theoretical ones, because hip-hop is not among the musical genres that really interest me. I’m not hostile to it, and even think I can tell the good stuff from the crap, but my tastes tend in other directions. (Prog, technical metal, jazz fusion, classical, and places where these genres mingle)

    Theoretically, I’m completely OK with hip-hop bricolage. It’s something that can be done creatively and well, or stupidly and badly.

  42. @Jim Hurlburt:

    I’ve managed to offend ‘artists’ for years by saying that art *must* include communication.

    Certainly, to be art, it must contain one or more messages. Then it comes down to whether or not you have the tools to decode at least one of the messages or not. But it’s not necessarily up to the artist to provide you with the tools, although as Eric’s post points out, when the artist communicates via well-known shared tools, it can widen the audience that can enjoy the art, as well as deepen the enjoyment.

    But were those ‘artists’ of which you speak really offended by your statement, or by the way it was proffered?

    For some reason, many ‘artists’ are infuriated by the above — it is *my* responsibility to understand them, not theirs to educate me.

    I don’t think there is actually any responsibility for communication in any direction here. And how an artist presents his work to the public can actually be part of the art. Did they really tell you that you have a responsibility here, or were they simply explaining that they don’t have such a responsibility, and/or reacting badly to the way you confronted them?

    Mind you, some art involves deep questions of responsibility. Like, should the artist explain up front that the switches work?

    @Jay Maynard:

    Sorry, but to me, if an art form has to say “if you have to have it explained, you ain’t gonna understand nohow” is the hallmark of High Art – and of its failure.

    I’m not sure if any true art form says this. But if a so-called “artist” says this, it’s probably because of one of two reasons: (1) it takes a long time to explain, and in his experience, 99% of those who are given the explanation don’t, in fact, subsequently understand, and he’s gotten very tired of the explanation and the ensuing incredulity and abuse; or (2) it’s not really art and he’s just (consciously or unconsciously) seeing if he can blow smoke up your dress.

    The problem with this, though, is that over 1% of the population will smile and nod and agree and say inane things that resonate with any “artist” (though probably not with a real artist), so a lot of “artists” in elitist category 2 will truly believe they are in elitist category 1.

    So, a true category 1 elitist artist who is not in the mood for a proper explanation can dismiss anybody for the inability to understand and be right 99% of the time. Of course, if you are dismissed in this fashion, you can also assume that the “artist” is actually in elitist category 2 tailor, conning the King and everybody except the occasional child with his fine woven goods, and you will likewise be right 99% of the time.

    Coincidentally, I was just thinking about art and artists, because I happened across this article, which describes a fairly typical scenario about the relatives of a dead artist going back to the well for more money. But buried in the background information, and subsequently confirmed by other articles and wikipedia, is that Ken Kesey’s widow just married Larry McMurtry, so I am now, somehow distantly connected to Ken Kesey, through a tenuous thread of interpersonal relationships and art. Larry McMurtry has a son, James, who is a musician, and James has a son, Curtis, who is also a musician, and Curtis has a band that my daughter Allison sometimes plays in…

  43. “Final note, it used to be that educated persons were expected to have read a defined list of books (The Canon), precisely so they could speak to each other in short hand references, and play silly one upmanship can-you-spot-my-cryptic-reference games.”

    Like the Punch cartoon of Napier capturing Sindh? (For those unfamiliar with it, there was one word under the cartoon — “peccavi”. In Latin, which any educated person of the day would be expected to know, the word means “[I] have sinned”.)

    Some “sub”-cultures are so large as to include all educated person within the nation. Others, like the sub-culture of those who speak Klingon, are much smaller. Geeks and hackers fall somewhere in between.

    @Jay Maynard: “Sorry, but to me, if an art form has to say “if you have to have it explained, you ain’t gonna understand nohow” is the hallmark of High Art – and of its failure.”

    I hardly think Punch qualifies as High Art. :-)

  44. Isaac Asimov wrote an interesting short essay on writing titled, “The Mosaic and the Plate Glass.” (1980) In it, he describes two basic ways of writing.

    – The Mosaic: You pay more attention to the language itself than to the events that you are describing. This is the basis of poetry, high literature, and and style. It is also the genre that both creates and fears cliches, because it is always seeking “powerful” language, and many previous writers will have done very similar things.

    – The Plate Glass: Words and phrases are chosen simply for their ability to describe what is going on without getting in the way. The goal is to have the reader not even be aware of the writing.

    ESR’s use of tropes is one way of simplifying his prose. Clearly, he’s writing Plate Glass-style.

    One big issue with a certain segment of High Literature is that it has gone so far into the Mosaic genre that it is essentially unreadable to many. I remember looking at the first page of Finnegan’s Wake once, and promptly closed the book. Sorry, not for me. On the other hand, the best of High Literature walks the fine balance between complexity of language and powerful emotional communication. For me, this would include works like Chesterton’s “Lepanto”.

  45. Says Trent:
    > What I immediately thought of upon reading this was the technique of remixing and sampling that has been growing in popularity since Umberto Eco started layering
    > recordings from AM radio over tracks (I’m reasonably sure he was one of the first to do this).

    Eco was early-ish in the use of radio, but his techniques are all derived from the musique concrete developed by Pierre Schaeffer well over a decade before Eco started. Tape looping, layered phonographs, sampled sound, re-organisation of works against other sound sources – Schaeffer was doing that in 1948. Ironically, Schaeffer was extremely high art and avant garde and quite self-conscious about making novel art.

  46. > but his techniques are all derived from the musique concrète developed by Pierre Schaeffer

    Which, of course, brings us back around to art that any self-respecting nerd should know by heart — the Doctor Who theme song.

  47. I don’t mind art that even tries to hold up a metaphorical fun house mirror and try to show me some aspect of myself, but I do agree that art should have some information content of its own. It’s not a challenge to generate something with effectively no information of its own. (Don’t miss the word “effectively”; yes, with sufficient analysis one can find almost anything in anything, but the if the information content comes from the analysis rather than the work, then no credit to the creator of the work.)

  48. As far as visual arts go, I’m in the camp of “no real high art has been created since about 1900″. Basically, if you’re later than the Impressionists, I am deeply suspicious of you. This does not apply to folk art and other everyday arts.

    Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason discusses the distinction between High Culture, Midcult (middlebrow, middle-class culture), and MassCult (least common denominator culture). (The latter two terms were apparently invented by Dwight MacDonald). It’s a very interesting analysis; a very quick, rough summary would be that the intelligentsia were so scornful of Midcult (e.g., books like “The Agony and the Ecstasy”) that they largely destroyed it, never realizing that in doing so they were opening the way for the victory and cultural domination of Masscult.

    The best of folk art, music, etc., such as the early jazz artists who developed and fleshed out that class of music, would fall solidly into Midcult IMHO. They are not creations of the elites, but of the common men, yet they have a real quality to them that rises above Masscult. On the other hand, most Top 40 music falls solidly into Masscult, as does much of rock n’ roll and country music.

    I think it’s important to keep these three levels distinct. One is elitist, and deliberately designed (especially since 1900) to exclude most people. One is the common people at their best, and the other is the common people at their everyday level. (Even Masscult has its place IMHO, but it’s not timeless in the way that good quality High Culture or Midcult can be.)

  49. Cathy’s layering the cake:
    > The best of folk art, music, etc., such as the early jazz artists who developed and fleshed out that class of music, would fall solidly into Midcult IMHO.

    Such as Jelly Roll Morton, who developed music of real quality in a good, solid mid-cultural brothel.

  50. @Cathy:

    > I think it’s important to keep these three levels distinct.

    I haven’t read Jacoby’s book, but I’m curious how you cleanly get to three levels. It seems to me that you’re describing a conflation of at least three different metrics to get there: the quality of the art, the size of audience that will appreciate the art, and the sensibilities of the audience that will appreciate the art.

    There’s some great subversive art out there that wasn’t designed for the common man, but that “elites” would probably think was crap.

  51. >[Midcult] is the common people at their best, and [masscult] is the common people at their everyday level.

    Well, it’s a neat scheme, but I’m not sure the high-culture/midcult/masscult distinction is so easily drawn as all that.

    For example, consider the single band I’ve liked best since I discovered them in 2008, Liquid Tension Experiment. Check out Another Dimension or Biaxident, then tell me where they fall.

    This is clearly not masscult. These are world-class musicians at the top of their game. Midcult or high culture? The guardians of high culture would surely blench at the thought of allowing bunch of scruffy rock musicians in that door, but these guys play at a level even the pioneering “progressive” acts of the 1970s never reached. To find their equals as technicians and expressive players you’d need to be looking at jazz and classical virtuosi. The idiom says “midcult” but the level of dedicated artistry and sheer excellence says “high culture”. You almost have have to be a musician to even understand that what they make look so effortless…isn’t. At all.

    I think there are enough cases like this to render the nice tripartite grading system at least highly suspicious, if not outright busted.

  52. @Patrick: “I haven’t read Jacoby’s book, but I’m curious how you cleanly get to three levels. It seems to me that you’re describing a conflation of at least three different metrics to get there: the quality of the art, the size of audience that will appreciate the art, and the sensibilities of the audience that will appreciate the art.”

    It’s been quite a while since I read her book, so I can’t give you a more detailed description.

    “There’s some great subversive art out there that wasn’t designed for the common man, but that “elites” would probably think was crap.”

    Hmmm, I’m not sure that would fit cleanly into any of the three categories.

    Here’s another way to define the three categories (these are my words, not Jacoby’s):

    (1) High Art — intended for other artists, and those highly knowledgeable about art and culture.
    (2) Midcult — intended for thoughtful, intelligent people in the middle class who have to spend most of their mental time and energy earning a living, and who have not studied art in any detail.
    (3) Masscult — intended for anyone at all. Brain optional.

  53. >High Art — intended for other artists, and those highly knowledgeable about art and culture.

    Which still doesn’t resolve the Liquid Tension Experiment question, though it comes closer. I’m pretty sure their audience consists largely of other musicians and those highly knowledgeable about music. But “knowledgeable about art and culture”? No. It doesn’t matter a damn to appreciating them whether you’re up on your canonical great works of Western art, except in the very limited way that some familarity with classical music may help.

  54. Re: Liquid Tension Experiment

    Mind = blown.

    I’ve only ever heard MIDI sequencers and the like produce music with this sort of speed and precision. These guys make DragonForce sound like Beavis and Butt-head doing air guitar.

    Oh, and they’re definitely midcult. The audience of “high art” is those in the “art world”, in other words, those who can see the Emperor’s fine new suit. Simple test: Look at a Jackson Pollock painting. What do you see? Random spatters and spills? You’re midcult — at best.

    Liquid Tension Experiment are phenomenal technical geniuses, but unless they have “something to say” — something that the art world can validate as a worthy message — they will remain midcult. I’m sure you can figure out where on the political spectrum “worthy messages” will fall.

  55. RE Jackson Pollock– that’s an interesting case because fractal structure has (allegedly) been found in his paintings, which indicates at least some kind of intention and control behind his splatterings. Not sure if he was trying to actually communicate anything (you’d have to ask him about that, and he’s dead,) but if you look at it you can see that it’s at least one grade above white noise. Plus, aesthetically, I don’t actually think his paintings are ugly– If he’d done one in darker colors, I’d cheerfully set it as my desktop background.

    (By the way, if you like good musicianship, this is a very good era to be alive. Metal guitarists are very good these days. Like this guy:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nY-XDF_Ask )

  56. @Cathy: “no real high art has been created since about 1900? – this is quasi-tautological if high art means art created by great artists who dedicate their life craft to serving aristocratic connoisseurship.

    To go back to the idea that genius can be a destructive force, look at what happened to high culture following WWI, where huge creative energy was put into cultural vandalism. Two figures who deserve the term genius if any C20th artists do would be Picasso and Stravinsky, both very disrespectful of the kind of cultural institutions needed to sustain cultural production at a high level.

    @ESR: Liquid Tension Experiment – I haven’t heard them, but Wikipedia’s write-up sounds like the authentic prog rock dream reloaded. The best examples of prog rock would be a very earnest example of high art, one that failed because their vision needed a broad audience who did not keep the faith. For a British band, and a band that has been producing for a long while, how about Mark E. Smith’s The Fall? Fantastically original, a string failed imitators (justifying the rock press’ favourite word, inimitable), a big chip on his shoulders (for the other band members are mere employees) about the British cultural landscape, and been producing music on schedule for around 25 years. With Cathy’s new definition, he deeply dislikes high art institutions, and is quite happy to disappoint the midcult part of his audience. I get the impression that his picture of his ideal viewer is someone who has read the same things he has, and had the same reaction to punk music that he had, and who wants to really get to grips with what they are listening to.

  57. >never realizing that in doing so they were opening the way for the victory and cultural domination of Masscult.

    I have read arguments (more than 20 years ago, can’t remember the source) that they, or at least some of them, did it purposely to undermine the capacity, ambition, and discipline of middle class kids–in order to help reduce the “threat” to their offsprings’ social and economic position.

  58. “>never realizing that in doing so they were opening the way for the victory and cultural domination of Masscult.

    I have read arguments (more than 20 years ago, can’t remember the source) that they, or at least some of them, did it purposely to undermine the capacity, ambition, and discipline of middle class kids–in order to help reduce the “threat” to their offsprings’ social and economic position.”

    Eh?

    If everybody raves about something it is mass-cult by definition. Whether it is Bananarama, Dan Brown, JK Rowling, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Bach’s Tocata and Fuga in D minor. There has always been a Masscult and it has become more demanding over time as the masses became more educated. Today’s Masscult was last centuries High Culture.

  59. “There are people who just don’t seem to be temperamentally capable of grokking blues music.”

    This is more or less true for almost any genres. Back then when electronica / techno was interesting (like, 1995) it was very hard to make people older than 30 to realize that it is more than some primitive noise: I explained that you have to dance like half an hour to it, and then the changed hormonal balance due to the exercise and the monotony of the music makes your mind so open that a sudden cymbal hit will feel like half of an orgasm. They were usually skeptical – you have to develop a bit like of a tribal or sub-saharan mood or temperament to really grok it, and a lot of people who weren’t teenagers couldn’t.

    Similary, I always hoped I will develop a taste for classical music as I get older, because I know well enough that my favourite trance, acid-trance or goa trance tracks were inspired by classical music (although which composers I do not know), but even at 33 I just can’t find the patience for it, I still find it lacking passion, energy, rythm, and generally life, I am always waiting for something to happen already in the music and it never does.

  60. > Today’s Masscult was last centuries High Culture.

    Sometimes. The Eroica was bleeding edge avant garde when it was written, midcult within a generation. Some twentieth century visual art followed the same trajectory – Picasso springs to mind – but I wouldn’t say that much modernist classical music has.

  61. >Sorry, but to me, if an art form has to say “if you have to have it explained, you ain’t gonna understand nohow” is the hallmark of High Art – and of its failure.

    Oh, no, Jay. You know better than this. We’ve had this conversation.

    There are people who just don’t seem to be temperamentally capable of grokking blues music. You ain’t going to tell me that’s “High Art”.

    The difference is that (I had thought) it’s a famous saying about jazz by a jazz musician. You won’t catch the Three Wise Men from Houston saying anything of the sort, even about their stuff that’s unapologetic pure blues.

  62. @esr

    > Please do.

    >I’ve been reading about maqam, and related genres like Turkish classical. The absence of harmony and counterpoint, and the handling of microtones, suggests that these genres entail a level of complexity very similar to that of Indian classical music, but share many of its limitations as well. There may be grounds for claiming roughly equal sophistication of theory and technique here (as there are for Indian classical) but I’m not seeing anything that says to me that this is a qualitatively richer tradition than European classical.

    Turkish music can be considered a branch of Arabic music albeit with some distinct features of its own. Turks are actually relatively recent arrivals in the middle east (< 1000 yrs) and they have absorbed the native music of that region with some modifications to suit the Turkish language and singing traditions that followed especially in the Ottoman Empire. The Turks have a unique language (with vowel harmony) which is quite a bit more difficult to sing in compared to the Semitic languages (which are fusional and only have 3 vowels). Semitic languages are very possibly the most hymning/singing-friendly languages in the world. The degrees of freedom that emerge from having only 3 vowels are enormous. The only difference between the Arabic and Turkish music is the tuning of the instruments. The tuning in Turkish suits Turkish language and singing more. Otherwise, the Maqams are the same.

    The ancient maqams sound more like this. This is Maqam Hijaz performed solo. Maqam can be performed solo or as part of small or large orchestras.

    http://www.4shared.com/audio/MDbEg4g7/__online.htm

    Some instrumental with maqam influences (M. Khalife):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjis78at59o

    More instrumental music with maqam – Trio of brothers (Le Trio Joubran)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8rdAB-OPoU
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uie9OeXRU0c

    There are dozens of maqams and sub-maqams. Each one of the maqams has countless number of masterpieces. Both quantity and quality are enormous. The traditions are varied and rich and span hundreds of years of continued musical theory development and tradition.

    For a more internationalist rendition of ME and maqam music, you can find here the music of Omar Faruk (A turkish musician of Arab descent). His music is mostly based on arabic maqam (mostly egyptian influences) but combines both the Arabic and Turkish instruments with their respective tunings. It's also heavily influenced by the soulful/spiritual sufi musical traditions of the ME.

    http://www.4shared.com/audio/YIfc56TT/05Omar_Faruk_Tekbilek_-_Why.htm
    http://www.4shared.com/audio/Y9p_To6Q/OMAR_FARUK_TEKBILEK_-_I_LOVE_Y.htm

    The music of the near east is divine. Soulful. Rich. Nuanced. You transcend time and space and enter into a union with the gods when you listen to music like that of Omar Faruk.

    Enjoy

  63. Today’s Masscult was last centuries High Culture.

    But aren’t you conflating popularity and fashion(of the musical kind) with content quality here? I don’t think they’re necessarily on the same curve.

    Take the Beatles, definately popular but at lowest you’re looking at midcult (as per Cathy’s definitions). You could even entertain an argument of “High Art” and probably enjoy some thoughtful looks even if the majority were busy laughing you off the stage. Jean Michel Jarre is almost certainly in the realm of High Art even if he was only really popular in Europe.

    I just can’t imagine a world where some Music professor is droning on about the musical genius of the Spice Girls or Lady Gaga. It just doesn’t work for me.

  64. Actually in a way i retract that statement… i read your comment kind of around the wrong way (todays masscult is next centuries high culture).

  65. Eric wrote:

    Theoretically, I’m completely OK with hip-hop bricolage. It’s something that can be done creatively and well, or stupidly and badly.

    Cultural context matters. I suspect you’ll like this hip hop.

  66. very little of it is actually surprising.

    Didn’t you define one of the fundamentals of Unix programming as “The Principle of Least Surprise”?

    Sounds like good programming to me.

  67. Christopher Smith:

    I contend that D&D 4.0 is just as good a game for storytelling as 3.5/Pathfinder is. Or rather, both game engines fail to reward story driven play and character motivations equally. The impact of the GSL replacing the OGL was trivial to consumers. Most game customers DO NOT CARE.

    The thing that’s causing D&D to fall from an 80% market share to about 40% (with Pathfinder having about 42%) is simple market fragmentation. WoTC looks at D&D as a brand, and looks at Magic: the Gathering as a brand, and says to D&D “Why aren’t you more like your brother?”. When the development and product cycles are vastly different. WoTC wants evergreen products with a periodic refreshes to keep the existing customer base interested.

    RPG publishing is like publishing coffee table books on a 14 volume per year schedule, with each volume taking about 5 months from outline to completion, and selling to a (generally) static customer base.

    There’s a reason why D&D Essentials is stripping down 4.0 back to boardgame levels. It’s a desperate attempt to find a customer base that’s larger than the stagnant RPG market….by reducing barriers to entry by streamlining options. Likewise, WoTC has shed licenses – even licenses it can have no competition for, like Star Wars – because five years on the market has shown that, no, they’re selling to the SAME customers, and the size of the customer base isn’t going to grow enough to keep Hasbro happy.

    To publishers, it was the $10,000 licensing fee, coupled with making a condition of signing the GSL being putting all of your OGL content out of print. This was a move my business partner predicted back in 2003 with the launch of 3.5 D&D. “The Open Game License is open until WoTC decides to kill it with a new edition.”

    Without the tentpole of the D&D brand to carry the OGL, the bet was that the OGL would collapse. As it is, only the fact that Paizo had a lot of ‘brand visibility’ from being the publishers of Dungeon, Dragon, and their adventure paths allowed them to pick up the torch and become the tentpole brand. Goodman Games and Necromancer Games could not have produced a “new edition” of 3.5 and made it work. It was a gutsy move, and it was a move that really was a coin flip that could’ve sunk the company.

    WoTC also executed poorly on the D&D 4.0 launch; that was the most anemic marketing on launch campaign I’ve ever seen. Had they quietly let the 3.5 stuff go out of print for 2 years, and then done a “better-faster-easier-less-clunky” campaign, they’d’ve probably buried the OGL publishers who were parasite-riding on their brand…

  68. My reaction to Liquid Tension Experiment is that I’d absolutely pay to see them open for Rush.

    (And I’d love to watch Neil Peart and Mike Portnoy do duelling drum solos…)

    However…I find them interesting on a technical metier rather than as music. There is almost no emotional resonance for me. While Rush tends to come off as sterile to a lot of people, Liquid Tension Experiment is like Rush for Aspies.

  69. >The music of the near east is divine. Soulful. Rich. Nuanced. You transcend time and space and enter into a union with the gods when you listen to music like that of Omar Faruk.

    Ah. now that is interesting. I’ve been a fan of Omar Farouk Tekbilek since I heard his amazing “Laundry Girl”. The man is a truly world-class musician with talent arising from deeply mystical roots. I’ve been on a bit of a hunt for Sufi devotional music ever since I first learned of him. With specific regard to his music I think your claim is not too extravagant.

    Your other examples, though pleasant enough, are less impressive. Considerable melodic sophistication and subtlety, yes, but there isn’t much there that Indian raga doesn’t do as well or better. Indeed, there may be a genetic relationship. Wikipedia suggests that maqam is derived from Persian dashtaq; Indian classical music has strong Persian roots as well. The timing is about right for Persian music of half a millennium back to have been a common ancestor of both. There are obvious structural similarities.

    Like Indian classical, the examples of maqam I’ve heard suggests that the genre is limited, even within its own terms, by the relatively narrow range of tone colors available in its traditional instruments. European classical is rhythmically crude and uses only a limited range of modes, but no maqam composer will ever quite match the impact of (for example) Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony. The tools simply aren’t there, even if (at least in Tekbilek’s case) the musical acuity clearly is.

  70. >Cultural context matters. I suspect you’ll like this hip hop.

    Rapping in a pith helmet. With a plummy World Service accent. OK, that was bizarre.

  71. >There is almost no emotional resonance for me. [...] Liquid Tension Experiment is like Rush for Aspies.

    Interesting. They’re quite emotionally powerful for me, and I am not aspie at all. I wonder what the ground of the difference in perception is? I did note earlier that I think their audience is mainly other musicians; that might be relevant.

  72. >Cultural context matters. I suspect you’ll like this hip hop.

    Rapping in a pith helmet. With a plummy World Service accent. OK, that was buizarre.

    I still contend rap is spelled with a silent c, and that, while interesting, did nothing to change that opinion.

    One comment William Shatner makes with Henry Rollins on the tune (?) I Can’t Get Behind That is apropos here:

    BILL: I can’t get behind so-called singers that can’t carry a tune, get paid for talking, how easy is that? Well, maybe I could get behind that!

  73. > Sorry, but to me, if an art form has to say “if you have to have it explained, you ain’t gonna understand nohow” is the hallmark of High Art –
    > and of its failure.
    If you’re unusually good at understanding art, you may have picked up that impression, but it won’t be a good metric for most people.

  74. Hrm, having played and enjoyed Wesnoth, I have to say that I initially took the cliche-packed dialogue to be a nod to the “ancient” games which it emulates (which were all enjoyable). The dialogue in Wesnoth has never moved me, Eric, but I can’t say I ever played that particular campaign. I did have fun with the gameplay though, it was challenging.

    In regards to dialogue, character exposition and plotlines: I think PC/console gaming has brought us into a new era of human storytelling. I would like to say that if you haven’t played some of the more modern interactive movie style games (such as any of the Metal Gear Solid games) but particularly the later ones you are missing out on a new evolution of fiction. The BioWare games from the past few years such as the Mass Effect series (concluding this year) and the Dragon Age series are truly spectacular in their depth and dialogue. I realize you’ll have to get a copy of MS Windows and a decent gaming rig to enjoy them in their splendor, but trust me when I say it is worth it. I came away from these games feeling like Hollywood has finally been replaced. And yes, before you question me, I’m an old gamer who played through the Wing Commander series in which (ultimately) Mark Hamill starred in, the Sierra games, and others of that generation. Those were good games. I’m telling you what Bioware is putting out lately wholly surpasses that in depth and dialogue.

  75. > I still contend rap is spelled with a silent c, and that, while interesting, did nothing to change that opinion.
    It’s like death vocals– you have to get used to it. Possibly find some rapping set to a genre you already like? That’s what worked for me. (Although if you mostly listen to fast technical stuff, you probably won’t find anything.)

    You could also try a two-stage booster process, by getting to enjoy instrumental hip-hop like this:

  76. I’m a hardcore classic rocker: my car radio is set to XM 49 or XM 46 (well, whatever those two channels moved to a week ago) full time. My tastes especially lean toward the Southern part of that spectrum, artists like ZZ Top, Molly Hatchett, .38 Special, and Marshall Tucker Band.

    Rap set to that? That’s like doing Rembrandt on a small canvas with Krylon.

  77. >If you’re unusually good at understanding art, you may have picked up that impression, but it won’t be a good metric for most people.

    I am unusually good at understanding art (and producing it), and I still think Jay is mistaken in this instance. I gave blues music as an example, but there are many others.

    There are some kinds of art that can’t be fully grokked without a change in perceptual stance, a gut-level attunement to the patterns of expectation and surprise that the art uses. Truly great exponents of the art (like, say, Omar Farouk Tekbilek with respect to Arabic/Turkish maqam, or John Lee Hooker with respect to American blues) can draw you into such attunement, but it cannot be explained – it has to be experienced and internalized at a pre-verbal level.

  78. >You could also try a two-stage booster process, by getting to enjoy instrumental hip-hop like this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grDk_vs-jMU

    I don’t think that’s going to cut any ice with Jay. I thought it was pretty poor myself, and I’m far more rap-tolerant than he is. I’d rather listen to Grandmaster Flash, frankly. Or Professor Elemental, for that matter.

  79. Oh one more thing:

    This whole genre is known as chap hop. The WSJ recently did a little story on it.

    The other one I am aware of is Mr. B the gentlemen rhymer, who has a song called “Sraight Outta Surrey.”

  80. Eric: Both of us liked My Clown’s On Fire. I’m only peripherally a musician, but that’s a better litmus test of music that’s generally only appreciated by other musicians or people who appreciate technical mastery.

    (There is no video of My Clown’s On Fire by Larry and the Lounge Lizards on YouTube.)

  81. @Cathy: “High Art — intended for other artists, and those highly knowledgeable about art and culture.”

    @esr: “Which still doesn’t resolve the Liquid Tension Experiment question, though it comes closer. I’m pretty sure their audience consists largely of other musicians and those highly knowledgeable about music.

    Hmm, I am curious as to how serious a person has to be about music before you would grant them the title of “musician”. For example, I play once a week in a handbell choir, but I don’t consider myself a musician. My relationship to music is too casual for me to make that claim. I am definitely not “highly knowledgeable about music,” even though I’ve listened to and appreciated many genres over a lifetime. I have never done any in-depth study of musical history, genres, or structural composition.

  82. Here’s Omar Farouk Tekbilek’s Laundry Girl and the spacy Mayko remix of it that I first heard.

    I think the Mayko remix illustrates my earlier point about tone-color range nicely. The mystical quality in Omar Farouk’s music is really brought to foreground by Shehan’s subtle use of synthesizers and electric instruments with a wider range of timbres than you can get out of an oud and a ney. They’re never obtrusive, but they give the remix a depth and spaciousness not quite present in Farouk’s brilliant original.

  83. > I thought it was pretty poor myself, and I’m far more rap-tolerant than he is.
    The main thing to that track is the turntable virtuosity. That’s actually pretty good musicianship. (And it’s not rap, it’s hip-hop.)

  84. Cathy, I’ll let Eric expound on this more.

    I am only peripherally a musician. My brain is well above average at picking out patterns, which is a large part of what musical appreciation is, so I’m something of an outlier. I’m good at replicating patterns; I pick up new techniques in swordwork very well.

    I do not think it takes much formal study to be a musician. It takes a certain set of brain wiring. Most people manage to unlock that wiring when they practice a musical instrument, because it’s a part of the brain that works very differently from the usual ‘think and analyze’ part.

    I had a girlfriend once who was completing a degree in ethnomusicology. She could explain beating out 5s and 7s ( a critical part of maqam and Middle Eastern music) to me, and provided I was in my ‘fencing brain’ modality, I could tap them out perfectly. The instant I had to do that AND think in words, I shifted right back to tapping out 6/8 time.

    She said that the ability to do that tapping means that I could probably become a decent session musician if I cared to put the effort into learning the skills.

  85. Pingback: Because Sometimes Convention Is Right

  86. >Hmm, I am curious as to how serious a person has to be about music before you would grant them the title of “musician”.

    The quality I think is critical for appreciating bands like Liquid Tension Experiment isn’t years of study or virtuosity on an instrument, it’s the habit of listening analytically. If you’re the sort of person who, when listening to a multi-instrumental mix, can choose to attend to a single instrument, hear the subtleties in the playing, and get a sense of how the musician was exchanging timing information with the other players, you’re “musician” enough even if all you can work is a kazoo.

    So, which category do you think Liquid Tension Experiment occupies? (I am more interested in your classification process than the result.)

  87. > If you’re the sort of person who, when listening to a multi-instrumental mix, can choose to attend to a single instrument, hear the subtleties in the playing, and get a sense of how the musician was exchanging timing information with the other players, you’re “musician” enough even if all you can work is a kazoo.

    Oh my God. I used to do this all the time. I love Zep and would listen to it, and tune out everything else and listen to just the percussion, or just the bass, or just the guitar. Hear it, almost to the exclusion of all the rest. But, I have never even tried to learn to play anything.

    And I could do this best after smoking some good pot.

  88. Larry and the Lounge Lizards. No Pain For Cakes. Not quite as memorable as My Clown’s On Fire (Still trying to find a video or source for that online).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGYeg9r5hNI

    My Clown’s On Fire might quality as inaccessible. Which is why I’m trying to find it.

    Imagine putting this and Liquid Tension Experiment on shuffle in an mp3 player…

  89. I bear at least an above-average level of cynicism toward pretentious art. However, I do not at all understand the two-minute hate against Jackson Pollock. I have no particular knowledge of or interest in his work, and I have neither any talent nor any formal education in visual arts. Yet a few years ago, I came across this:

    http://www.your3dsource.com/guess-the-artist.html ,

    and my immediate reaction was, “Seriously? Do people struggle with this?”. I don’t like any of those paintings, but I don’t have any trouble telling at a glance which ones were made by an elephant.

  90. > and my immediate reaction was, “Seriously? Do people struggle with this?”

    I had the elephant and pre-schooler flipped, but Pollack’s style, namely his tonal choice, is unmistakable if you’re familiar with his work. The Miotte is the real stand-out on that page; minimal expressionism compared to the more baroque Pollack, and more obviously contemporary. Her brush technique and composition is too developed to try to pass off as pachyderm or kind. Also my favorite of that set.

    When I look at the Miotte, I can almost see the dynamic motion of the brush in her hand. I imagine it’s similar to musicians hearing highly-expressive music and being able to visualize the actual performance.

  91. @esr:

    > I’ve been on a bit of a hunt for Sufi devotional music ever since I first learned of him. With specific regard to his music I think your claim is not too extravagant.

    Sufi devotional music is almost entirely based on Maqam. Here, for example, is the so-called “Maqam Bayyati”. It is solo on the Ney (a flute-like instrument):

    http://www.4shared.com/audio/_uHBnbRr/09_-___-__.htm

    > Wikipedia suggests that maqam is derived from Persian dashtaq; Indian classical music has strong Persian roots as well. The timing is about right for Persian music of half a millennium back to have been a common ancestor of both. There are obvious structural similarities.

    I actually disagree with this. But I am by no means an expert. Just a fan of the music. I think the terminology (many of the technical names of the maqams) definitely originated from the Persians as it was Persians who formalized the theory of the music. I think though that music itself didn’t. Iranian classical music is very different from Arabic music. Neither the music is the same, nor the structure is the same, nor the instruments. In many respects, there is even more similarity between Arabic music and the music of Andalucia (Southern Spain) than with that of say Khorasan in Persia. Many believe that root of Arabic music come for a form of hardwired musicality that is built into the structure of Arabic/Semitic languages and and Arabic lyrical poetry which was discovered over a 1000 yrs ago.

    > European classical is rhythmically crude and uses only a limited range of modes, but no maqam composer will ever quite match the impact of (for example) Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony.

    I am not sure what exactly is meant by impact here. ME music at a fundamental level is not about dozens of orchestra members playing together in a powerful way. In fact, it somewhat takes the opposite point of view and emphasizes solo dialogs between different instruments within the one orchestra. That is why you don’t see a hundred violinists for example in an ME traditional orchestra. You’d still find many in some cases but not that many. It also takes the opposite point of view on playing multiple notes together. Instead it emphasizes micro-tonality so much so that there is practically no musical notation that is useful for accurately writing the notes. The range of sounds produced by ME instruments is imo richer and much more diverse than the instruments of european classical music.

  92. Pollack’s style, namely his tonal choice, is unmistakable if you’re familiar with his work.

    All his stuff said to me was “Look how much fun I’m having throwing paint around and getting big bucks for it!”

  93. I had the elephant and pre-schooler flipped.

    Same here. I was able to tell that (B) and (D) had the same maker, as did (E) and (F), but I had to check the answer key to tell which was which.

  94. I found one:
    http://www.myspace.com/lounge.lizards/music/songs/my-clown-s-on-fire-63715

    Excuse me while I collect my socks.

    I got more out of that from watching the spectrum analyzer display than I did from having the sound turned up to an audible level. The sense I got from it was of a bunch of talented musicians in the same room seeing how many ways they could make weird noises with their instruments.

    High Art, indeed. Yech bleagh pooey.

    I need to cue up some ZZ Top to wash that our of my brain. Perhaps the entire Afterburner album, at ear-flattening levels…

  95. > The sense I got from it was of a bunch of talented musicians in the same room seeing how many ways they could make weird noises with
    > their instruments.
    Really? Because to me it sounds at least a little bit composed.

  96. Really? Because to me it sounds at least a little bit composed.

    That’s why I said “talented musicians” instead of “six-year-olds”.

  97. > All his stuff said to me was “Look how much fun I’m having throwing paint around and getting big bucks for it!”

    Haha! Could be! Personally, I don’t give a damn what the artist is trying to say with a piece; I’ll either like it or I wont. But Pollack did have a strong sense of value and tone and it is a good way to differentiate his work from imitators.

  98. Jay: The best way to describe My Clown’s On Fire is this:

    It’s a bunch of VERY talented musicians experimenting with the musical equivalent of ‘negative space’. That piece has amazingly complicated structure to it, but that complicated structure is expressed almost completely in unresolved triples and tri-tones, which are harmonic, but not -pleasing- harmonics. They are, in fact, a common technique in film scoring to build up unease in the audience.

    It is entertaining to watch what Windows Media Player’s “make pretty abstract patterns” program does with that song. It also helps you spot some of the structure underlying it.

    I wonder if Eric considers it high art. (And Jay, for what it’s worth, about half of the people I play that piece for go “Oh! Wow!” The other half leave the room and ask that I never play it around them again.)

  99. @Maynard, this is the most “normal” sounding song of this category that I know of. If you understand this one there may yet be hope:

  100. > And Jay, for what it’s worth, about half of the people I play that piece for go “Oh! Wow!”

    Put me in the ‘wow’ camp. I could listen to that for days.

  101. I also get the sense from some of the answers that some people have a sense of pride in not getting the lambasted “high art” instead of trying to get it. Like if I dismissed Lisp because some of its sentences are backwards and it has too many parentheses.

    I haven’t really studied Pollock’s paintings or much about art, but I can recognize that he isn’t just dripping paint, the same way I can see that koans aren’t just gibberish. Pollock’s paintings are beautiful to me, and that’s enough. I don’t need to feel any better by mastering them.

  102. I’m now trying to picture Liquid Tension Experiment doing a cover of My Clown’s On Fire. They’d have so much fun with those hanging tri-tones and that layered arrangement…

    (Somewhere west of Philly, Eric is clutching his hands to his ears, trying to drive out sounds that are only in his brain…)

  103. >I also get the sense from some of the answers that some people have a sense of pride in not getting the lambasted “high art” instead of trying to get it.

    Indeed. To the extent that “high art” is perceived as a tribal affiliation, this is going to happen. Especially when, as in the West after 1900, “high art” has shown a strong tendency to prostitute itself to noxious politics.

    Personally, I have the same reaction to Jackson Pollock that I do to Captain Beefheart. I have received, processed, and understood each well enough to know that they are not simply emitting noise – but I’ve also decided that I don’t care. They’re not communicating anything I’m interested in.

  104. @Maynard, this is the most “normal” sounding song of this category that I know of. If you understand this one there may yet be hope:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8jfnyOyqX8

    That wasn’t bad. It at least sounded like music.

    Hope for what, though?

    OTOH, Liquid Tension Experiment sounded really, thoroughly great to me. I’m now looking for more.

  105. “Pollock’s paintings are beautiful to me, and that’s enough. I don’t need to feel any better by mastering them.”

    One way to look at a work of art (literature, visual, other) is to see it as a mental tool. The artist makes a tool you can use on your brain.

    So Pollock and Mondrian create something that looks deceptively simple. The question to ask is why do you or I like their paintings? What is it exactly what I see?

    And as all communication is based on context and a shared language, so is the appreciation of art is based on context, history, and a shared “vocabulary”. Whining that it is bad because you cannot see the point is like whining that Turks have nothing to say because you cannot understand Turkish.

  106. > Hope for what, though?
    For a moment, I was starting to suspect you were a commoner. (Kidding.)

  107. > And as all communication is based on context and a shared language, so is the appreciation of art is based on context, history, and a shared
    > “vocabulary”. Whining that it is bad because you cannot see the point is like whining that Turks have nothing to say because you cannot
    > understand Turkish.
    I think that kind of nonrepresentational art is supposed to simulate the frantic gesticulations you use to find your way in a city where you don’t know the language. How much can you say with how little shared vocabulary?

  108. >(And Jay, for what it’s worth, about half of the people I play that piece for go “Oh! Wow!” The other half leave the room and ask that I never play it around them again.)

    And there isn’t necessarily a correlation with musician/non-musician there. Cathy and I are both musicians. I was fascinated; she ran for the basement.

  109. esr and others:

    What do you guys think of Japanese Anime?

    Anyone remember that scene in Kill Bill I – when Boss Matsomoto kills Orin Ichi’s father ? Now that is art.

  110. > Just listened to that. It sounded like hate. Hostile alienation, and they were *doing it on purpose*.
    Yeah. And they were enjoying themselves too. How cool is that?

  111. >> Just listened to that. It sounded like hate. Hostile alienation, and they were *doing it on purpose*.
    >Yeah. And they were enjoying themselves too. How cool is that?

    They’re clever and skilled, I’ll give them that.

    But I wouldn’t call it cool. (Actually I might call them being able to get someone to PAY for that cool, awesome even. But the music itself? Not so much.)

  112. > [My clown's on fire] sounded like hate.

    I didn’t get that from it at all. But maybe that’s because in my youth I would do things like play Hindemith solos on the tuba…

    I will say that dissonance is something that it’s obvious a lot of people don’t get at all, and when you get a choir that has enough of those people in it singing a dissonant passage, it just sounds like muddy noise, because all they seem to understand is that it’s not supposed to be harmonious.

  113. >What do you guys think of Japanese Anime?

    I’m a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s stuff; more generally, if there are other animators doing movie-length anime for adults I’m guessing I’d probably like it.

    On the other hand, I tried to watch Cowboy Bebop but found it ugly and mystifying. Much of what I’ve heard about anime subgenres gives me an I-wouldn’t-touch-that-with-tongs reaction – yaoi guys, shojo in general, magical-girlfriend plots, monster hentai. Even the mecha stuff generally strikes me as rather silly and not really worth my time.

  114. RE Anime. I think the problem is that, stateside, there is too much unwarranted veneration of their equivalent of Saturday morning cartoons. I think some Americans take that stuff more seriously than the Japanese do. (Although I stand by my assertion that Cowboy Bebop is completely awesome.)

  115. > What do you guys think of Japanese Anime?

    Once a celebration of the animated form and an exploration of its possibilities beyond the hardened tropes of Disney and Warner Bros, now itself mired in its own tropes and in steady descent to irrelevancy for the last ten years.

    As for Kill Bill – Tarantino is a talented hack who is very, very good at pulling the best from things before and reworking it into something fresh. I personally thought the animated section of Kill Bill was mildly masturbatory and rather pandering. But then, I think the same about a lot of his work. Not to say I don’t ENJOY his movies, mind.

    @esr:
    Please check out the late Satoshi Kon’s work. Namely such as Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, Perfect Blue. Feature length, adult plots that take full advantage of the possibilities of animation to do some really fantastic things.

    95% of anime is guttertrash, and I say this as a fan who went so far as to open and co-own an anime store once upon a time.

  116. Like if I dismissed Lisp because some of its sentences are backwards and it has too many parentheses.

    It’s more like dismissing TECO because, while not actually being linenoise, it’s functionally indistinguishable from linenoise without knowing, a priori, what to look for.

    And we left TECO behind years ago for precisely this reason.

    Great art communicates the artist’s insight by first engaging the audience on terms they can understand, and delivering the insight as a payload on top of that.

    By contrast I find Mondrian’s art immensely satisfying and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the bold colors and regular geometric structure, maybe the dimensions of the shapes are in ratios which are pleasing to me… I don’t know.

  117. >Please check out the late Satoshi Kon’s work. Namely such as Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, Perfect Blue. Feature length, adult plots that take full advantage of the possibilities of animation to do some really fantastic things.

    Noted; yes, that sounds very much as though I might like it.

  118. >95% of anime is guttertrash, and I say this as a fan who went so far as to open and co-own an anime store once upon a time.

    You might be able to answer a question for me.

    Though I’ve never seen direct evidence of it, I’m guessing there exists a subgenre of historical dramatic anime focusing on periods like the gekokujo and the Unification Wars. Does this in fact exist? And if so, where can I find some?

  119. >> [My clown's on fire] sounded like hate.

    >I didn’t get that from it at all. But maybe that’s because in my youth I would do things like play Hindemith solos on the tuba…

    >I will say that dissonance is something that it’s obvious a lot of people don’t get at all, and when you get a choir that has enough of those >people in it singing a dissonant passage, it just sounds like muddy noise, because all they seem to understand is that it’s not supposed to >be harmonious.

    I would respond that all that means is that you’re jaded. Because dissonance is *supposed* to, by itself, be jarring and disturbing. I make the claim that saying the piece sounded like hate means I *get* dissonance better than you.

    There seems to be a dividing line between people who are interested in the techniques (the tricks, the tropes), and people who are interested in the content. The type of music that’s only appreciated by musicians is just a compendium of techniques, without the techniques being *for* anything. (I would suggest that as an analogy for 20th Century “art” in general.)

  120. >The type of music that’s only appreciated by musicians is just a compendium of techniques, without the techniques being *for* anything.

    Oh, hell no. The best music-for-musicians unifies technical brilliance with something emotionally interesting at its core. Even “My Clown’s On Fire” exerts the horrifying fascination of a nasty train wreck in progress; it’s not empty of meaning.

    The kind of sterility you’re describing is not uncommon, of course – it nearly strangled jazz and near-murdered prog rock back in the late 1970s. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that all music-for-musicians is like that. I have a virtual shelf-full of CDs that are brilliant counterexamples.

  121. >95% of anime is guttertrash

    Sturgeons law. 90% of everything is junk. The difference between your 95 and his 90 is perception and noise.
    I’ve come to note that the reason that people like ‘the good old stuff’ — which is much better than the new junk.
    Is that the bad old stuff has faded into well deserved obscurity, and only the very best has survived.

    Some of the top 5% of anime will live for decades — or longer

  122. Even “My Clown’s On Fire” exerts the horrifying fascination of a nasty train wreck in progress; it’s not empty of meaning.

    Meh. It just struck me as tedious.

    No Pain for Cakes, at least, has the virtue of sounding like jazz. It didn’t stick with me beyond that; I had to play it again to record this opinion of it.

    Biaxident, OTOH, Did have an emotional impact on me – and I was surprised to discover it as the song was ending.

    What’s that thing that looks like an overgrown electric guitar neck with strings Liquid Tension Experiment’s bassist was playing on Another Dimension?

  123. >What’s that thing that looks like an overgrown electric guitar neck with strings Liquid Tension Experiment’s bassist was playing on Another Dimension?

    That was Tony Levin, and it’s a Chapman Stick. A handful of extremely capable bass players use them; Levin was a pioneer of the instrument and is probably still the most accomplished stick player alive.

  124. > Though I’ve never seen direct evidence of it, I’m guessing there exists a subgenre of historical dramatic anime
    > focusing on periods like the gekokujo and the Unification Wars. Does this in fact exist? And if so, where can I find some?

    I’m not familiar with anything set during those periods. If any anime does exist, it was very likely produced no later than around 1995, when the trends started to move towards more slice-of-life and broke-but-getting-by stories. The bigger epics came out of the late 70s and into the 80s, with some notables in the early 90s, but the majority of historical anime I’m familiar with deals with late Edo and Meiji-era plots. The typical samurai tale tends to sit somewhere in the vast limbo of the Edo period, as far as I’ve been able to tell.

    The problem is that the best, most interesting niche anime came during the 80s and early 90s when it was still being produced by, essentially, nerds in garages. Micro-budgets demanded low cel counts, but with moments of brilliance to overcome the technical limitations. cf. the origins of Gainax. One tended to find more variety then, and more risks. There were a lot of failures, but at least they were interesting failures.

    I could expound further, but I’ll spare everyone that torture.

    Now, I’d be amazed if there isn’t something like what you’re looking for in manga form. There’s manga of Everything. But manga is amazingly less expensive than animation, obviously.

  125. What do you guys think of Japanese Anime?

    Back when I was young and retarded, I used to just loooooooove animu. But most of it is garbage intended to keep kids watching and keep them buying this season’s new crop of action figures/trading cards/virtual pets/other. Just like our crap shows of the 80s like He-Man and Transformers but even more viciously mercenary.

    Like everything else, the 90s ruined anime. We saw the soft and curvaceous designs from guys like Haruhiko Mikimoto (and no, I’m not talking just about those kinds of curves!) give way to angular, expressionless crap-ola that can be churned out easily in Illustrator on an assembly line.

    Even the mecha stuff generally strikes me as rather silly and not really worth my time.

    There’s a small chance you’d be gobsmacked by the awesomeness of Gunbuster. I have yet to encounter anime that so thoroughly and gleefully steals from Western hard SF. There’s a winking reference to Heinlein, Asimov, Card, or Bester behind every major plot point. The animation is not quite up to Miyazaki standards but holds up well even when compared to its contemporaries (let alone today when bland and shapeless is the norm in Japan, as long as it has big shiny eyes), especially given the shoestring budget they had to work with.

    Sadly, these days Gunbuster is known for one thing among most anime fans: the brief scenes involving the pioneering animation of breast physics. Which to me says a lot about anime fans.

    Then the 90s happened, and the same studio went emo and produced Evangelion

  126. >the majority of historical anime I’m familiar with deals with late Edo and Meiji-era plots. The typical samurai tale tends to sit somewhere in the vast limbo of the Edo period, as far as I’ve been able to tell.

    I might like that. Can you point me at examples?

  127. @esr:

    > I’m a fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s stuff; more generally, if there are other animators doing movie-length anime for adults I’m guessing I’d probably like it.

    He’s the best. I too think that movie-length anime is better than the 20+ episode series type of works. Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan – which will take you a whole day to watch – would have probably been better as 3-hr a movie.

    @jsk:

    > I personally thought the animated section of Kill Bill was mildly masturbatory and rather pandering. But then, I think the same about a lot of his work

    The part when Orin is hiding under the part. And the drop of blood lands on her face — Utter perfection.

  128. The part when Orin is hiding under the part. And the drop of blood lands on her face — Utter perfection.

    Production I.G. does turn out top quality stuff, very much like the old stuff.

    Still doesn’t stop Tarantino from being a wanker.

  129. >Production I.G. does turn out top quality stuff, very much like the old stuff.

    True. It is in the true style of the late 70s stuff. It is that 70s-ish texture that gives it the beauty. I only like the old stuff too.

    > Still doesn’t stop Tarantino from being a wanker.

    wanker but genius. We are in agreement. I think his genre is so unique among the filmmakers that his works will be remembered for decades to come. Pulp Fiction is one magnificent poem from beginning to end – The screenplay will live till eternity.

  130. @greg:

    I will say that dissonance is something that it’s obvious a lot of people don’t get at all, and when you get a choir that has enough of those people in it singing a dissonant passage, it just sounds like muddy noise, because all they seem to understand is that it’s not supposed to be harmonious.

    I would respond that all that means is that you’re jaded.

    What the heck are you talking about? If people sing harmony out of tune, I cringe. When people sing dissonance out of tune, I cringe. I can forgive some technical issues, but some are so jarring you just can’t get past them. Of course, this can sometimes be done deliberately as art too. An example of somebody who can actually do this on purpose and pull it off is Patricia Routledge, when she’s singing on Keeping Up Appearances. But the clown song wasn’t out-of-tune, so not cringe-worthy for that reason.

    I would respond that all that means is that you’re jaded. Because dissonance is *supposed* to, by itself, be jarring and disturbing. I make the claim that saying the piece sounded like hate means I *get* dissonance better than you.

    Dissonance isn’t *always* supposed to be jarring and disturbing, any more than harmony is always supposed to be joyous. It can be evocative of several different emotions. But even when it is jarring and disturbing, it’s not always hate. When I listen to the song, I visualize people laughing about the flames coming out of the clown until they realize how serious it is, and then they get quiet. But that’s situational — a combination of callousness, expectation that the clown should be doing something funny, and then horrific realization that something’s gone terribly wrong. Not hate.

    There seems to be a dividing line between people who are interested in the techniques (the tricks, the tropes), and people who are interested in the content.

    You leave no room for people who are interested in both.

    The type of music that’s only appreciated by musicians is just a compendium of techniques, without the techniques being *for* anything. (I would suggest that as an analogy for 20th Century “art” in general.)

    What do you mean “the” type of music? Sure, as I wrote about art earlier, there is some “art” that isn’t, and there are “artists” who go out of their way to be overly clever and manage not to say anything in the process. I don’t think this was the best song ever, but I wouldn’t put it in that category.

  131. >You leave no room for people who are interested in both.

    Indeed he doesn’t.

    We’ve never met in person, but your communications style strongly suggests an analytical listener. How did you react to those Liquid Tension Experiment tracks, and Laundry Girl?

  132. I contend that D&D 4.0 is just as good a game for storytelling as 3.5/Pathfinder is. Or rather, both game engines fail to reward story driven play and character motivations equally.

    Of course, the engines in themselves don’t provide story-driven play—but 3e (especially with some of Pathfinder’s much-needed tweaks) gives both players and DMs much more flexibility in developing stories and characters. Rewarding that sort of gameplay is the DM’s job—but the sorts of entertaining scenarios my group used to run into playing 3.5 (especially with characters such as the telepath/thief) don’t seem to be as easy to build in 4e.

    The impact of the GSL replacing the OGL was trivial to consumers. Most game customers DO NOT CARE.

    Directly, of course, you’re absolutely right. However, though I may simply not have been looking in the right places, I don’t see nearly the “soft content” market for 4e that was everywhere for 3.5. Sturgeon’s Law certainly applied, but there were some good scenarios out there.

    The thing that’s causing D&D to fall from an 80% market share to about 40% (with Pathfinder having about 42%) is simple market fragmentation. WoTC looks at D&D as a brand, and looks at Magic: the Gathering as a brand, and says to D&D “Why aren’t you more like your brother?”. When the development and product cycles are vastly different. WoTC wants evergreen products with a periodic refreshes to keep the existing customer base interested.

    Keeping in mind that WotC isn’t WotC anymore, but Hasbro, I think this is absolutely the issue, though I’d have emphasized more the corporate organization. I remember an interview that came out around the time 4e was in “beta” where the interviewee contrasted WotC in 2000—when any random employee down to the receptionist could get drafted to come playtest some new idea—and in 2008, when a large chunk of even “core” staff didn’t play.

    To publishers, it was the $10,000 licensing fee, coupled with making a condition of signing the GSL being putting all of your OGL content out of print. This was a move my business partner predicted back in 2003 with the launch of 3.5 D&D. “The Open Game License is open until WoTC decides to kill it with a new edition.”

    I hadn’t even known about that contract requirement, but it seems to me that it goes right along with my prediction that successful third-party publishers will be getting offers they can’t refuse from Hasbro.

    WoTC also executed poorly on the D&D 4.0 launch; that was the most anemic marketing on launch campaign I’ve ever seen. Had they quietly let the 3.5 stuff go out of print for 2 years, and then done a “better-faster-easier-less-clunky” campaign, they’d’ve probably buried the OGL publishers who were parasite-riding on their brand…

    Maybe. OTOH, it’s possible that Paizo would have made its move preemptively during that time. In any event, I don’t think it’s the marketing that was the problem–it was a combination of the facts that WotC outright lied to its customer community (saying they weren’t about to deprecate 3.5 in 2007 or so), that they launched without sufficient content depth (e.g., beloved races and classes going back to original D&D were missing), and that there simply wasn’t a lot to distinguish the new edition from MMORPGs in general and WoW in particular—it looked (correctly) like a move to try to parlay D&D into a workable online franchise rather than a serious attempt to provide a better product for its customers.

  133. @Jim Hurlburt:

    I’ve come to note that the reason that people like ‘the good old stuff’ — which is much better than the new junk.
    Is that the bad old stuff has faded into well deserved obscurity, and only the very best has survived.

    Yeah. I have a stock response for whenever people are talking about stuff, and someone pulls out the ole’ “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” I always agree “No, they don’t. But then again, they never really did, did they?”

    And, of course, Sturgeon’s law says I’m right 90% of the time.

  134. I’ll point out that I don’t think My Clown’s On Fire is The Greatest Piece of Art Evahr.

    It’s not. It’s a pretty interesting litmus test. I find that it’s about a 50/50 divide, and there are almost no ‘neutral’ reactions. It’s either “Oh, wow…” or “OW. HOW….” as someone runs for the basement.

    I am curious about how those who sing the praises of polyphony and unusual time signatures in Middle Eastern music react to it.

    I found both versions of Laundry Girl engaging, slightly more so than Biaccident, which, to me, is layered technique on layered technique on layered technique that the technical virtuosity means that I, at least, have trouble getting to the emotional line of the music.

  135. How did you react to those Liquid Tension Experiment tracks, and Laundry Girl?

    Been busy. Only listened to Another Dimension and to My Clown’s On Fire. Frankly, I found more heart in My Clown’s on Fire, but the technique in Another Dimension was impeccable.

    I think I might understand why some people are saying Liquid Tension Experiment is more interested in technique and trope — the song actually sounded a bit like a medley to me, and that’s usually a bit off-putting. But if I listened to it a few more times, I would *probably* start to think of it as a few different movements of the same piece.

    Because of circumstances I never listen to music while I’m working, but I think I could have Another Dimension on in the background and still get a lot accomplished, after I heard it a few times. Listening to My Clown’s On Fire enough to put it in that category would probably make me (even more) deranged.

  136. >But if I listened to it a few more times, I would *probably* start to think of it as a few different movements of the same piece.

    That’s how it’s intended. If you found Another Dimension lacking in emotional juice, try this studio version of Biaxident, or Hourglass from the same album.

  137. It’s not. It’s a pretty interesting litmus test. I find that it’s about a 50/50 divide, and there are almost no ‘neutral’ reactions. It’s either “Oh, wow…” or “OW. HOW….” as someone runs for the basement.

    I’m guessing I probably would have had what you consider a neutral reaction. I thought it wasn’t bad and was executed well. If I had a basement, the sort of thing that would make me run for it is a typical “American Idol” episode of a few years back. (I’ve heard they’re better now, but I won’t chance it.) My wife and I would sometimes watch House, which came on right after American Idol, and we had to be very careful not to turn the sound up on the TV until we were sure that the “singing” was over.

  138. Christopher Smith:

    We’re largely agreeing up above, so I’m not quoting your entire message.

    In terms of publishing ventures – Paizo could carry off doing 3.75/Pathfinder. I don’t think any of the other publishers could have.

    All Hasbro had to do to finish burying the OGL was to simply not reprint the 3.5 core rulebooks, focus on licensed properties (remember, they had Star Wars and at one point Harry Potter to carry them), claim that the terms of the licenses would prevent the OGL from touching those properties, and put out a small trickle of new product for their existing D&D lines.

    Do that from 2007 to 2009 and launch D&D 4th to fill the niche that’s collapsed without 3.5 as an active competitor, and put enough marketing mojo behind it, and you’ll get everyone who’s been starved for new campaign materials.

    Or, they could’ve just put out a derivation of the 3.5 rules and kept their existing customer base. Paizo’s bet on Pathinder was a “bet the company” gamble. It paid off big…they sold out of the first printing of the rulebook before the boats left China, but there was a LOT of “We win or we go home…” angst there at the time.

    On to game design:

    Of course, the engines in themselves don’t provide story-driven play—but 3e (especially with some of Pathfinder’s much-needed tweaks) gives both players and DMs much more flexibility in developing stories and characters.

    On this, I strongly disagree. Pathfinder gives plenty of options for gussying up your tactical combat playing piece. it does not help you make characters. Indeed, they’re now going down the road of character class bloat that splatbooked 3.5 into an unplayable morass, though they’re taking that path more carefully and with greater measure.

    The problem here is combinatorial explosions.

    Rewarding that sort of gameplay is the DM’s job—but the sorts of entertaining scenarios my group used to run into playing 3.5 (especially with characters such as the telepath/thief) don’t seem to be as easy to build in 4e.

    You will get the game play experience that exists on the overlapping Venn diagram set of three reward mechanisms:

    1) What the game system rewards. In D&D? Most game system rewards are increases in combat capability.
    2) What the GM rewards.
    3) What your other players reward.

    The belief that game systems don’t have to reward story and character driven play, because “That’s the GM’s job…” is, well, something I disagree with. Rewarding story and character driven play is something that should be rewarded by the game system and the other players, and reinforced by the Game Master.

    See Minimus as an example of an RPG that puts all three of those overlapping reward mechanisms to work in making a story driven RPG. In four pages.

  139. My wife and daughter made me turn Biaxident off before I got in very far, so I can’t report on the whole song.

    As you say, the technique is excellent. I didn’t really get far enough in to see if it was going anywhere worthwhile.

  140. > Sturgeons law. 90% of everything is junk. The difference between your 95 and his 90 is perception and noise.
    > I’ve come to note that the reason that people like ‘the good old stuff’ — which is much better than the new junk.
    > Is that the bad old stuff has faded into well deserved obscurity, and only the very best has survived.

    > Some of the top 5% of anime will live for decades — or longer

    Oh, there are more than a few horrendously-bad anime from yesteryear. I suffer no delusions there. But even taking Sturgeon into consideration, anime post-2000 sees a steady homogenization into a few tired genres with increasingly-rare outliers. And while e.g. 80′s anime also tended towards a smaller handful of genres (fantasy and SF overall, and absurd comedy more towards the beginning of the decade), within those there was more energy to explore and create. It wasn’t all good, but it was at least different and interesting.

  141. >I am curious about how those who sing the praises of polyphony and unusual time signatures in Middle Eastern music react to it.

    Middle Eastern music has unusual time signatures out the wazoo (which I like a lot) and very weak, nearly nonexistent polyphony (which leaves it rather lacking to my eclectic but Western-trained ear). Were you thinking of microtonality? (A feature I find appealing.)

    As I’ve pointed out, My Clown’s On Fire aroused in me a sort of horrified fascination. I could hear how carefully structured and brilliantly perverse it is. I won’t say I liked it, exactly, but I’m glad I heard it once.

    >Biaccident, which, to me, is layered technique on layered technique on layered technique that the technical virtuosity means that I, at least, have trouble getting to the emotional line of the music.

    That is very interesting. For you the technique obscures the emotional content, eh?

    That’s not my experience at all. But your report bounces off something I happen to know about the track in an interesting way. Because I like that album so much, I looked into the making-of. And, as it turns out, most of it was jam sessions that were lightly retouched afterwards; very little was composed in advance. Those songs happened because four almost ridiculously skilled musicians were tossing musical ideas at each other and collectively seeing where they went.

    This suggests a tactic for you to try: listen for the transitions. Listen for the places where one of them hands off the lead to someone else. A lot of the emotional content in this piece is in how the musicians are reacting to each other, the way they make space for a line that’s going somewhere really fun or step in to control the pacing when the development of an idea reaches a natural endpoint. Occasionally you get exuberant exchanges of “Can you top this?” “You betcha!” followed by, “OK, let’s pull it all back together.” They’re so awesomely good that the result often sounds as composed as a sonata, but it isn’t.

  142. >My wife and daughter made me turn Biaxident off before I got in very far, so I can’t report on the whole song.

    Alas. Hourglass is much softer and probably won’t freak them out. Entirely jammed, by the way, as impossible as that might seem.

  143. >That’s not my experience at all. But your report bounces off something I happen to know about the track in an interesting way. Because >I like that album so much, I looked into the making-of. And, as it turns out, most of it was jam sessions that were lightly retouched >afterwards; very little was composed in advance. Those songs happened because four almost ridiculously skilled musicians were tossing >musical ideas at each other and collectively seeing where they went.

    I wonder if it means anything that that was obvious to me. I listened to both, found them impressive and fun but devoid of any emotional content- seemed like a couple of guys messing around, who happened to be fluent masters of all rock-related subgenres.

  144. You are correct – it’s microtonality. As jarring as My Clown’s On Fire is to Western ears, I am curious how non-Western listeners would take it.

    I’ll give Biaccident another listen or two. It struck me as more technical virtuosity and showing off and less about conveyance of emotional impact. I also have the same general reaction to Joe Satriani, who you also like a lot.

    On the other hand, a lot of Rush’s stuff in this vein still works well for me. La Villa Strangiato also has some incredibly deft playing. (Geddy Lee’s work on the base in here – where he picks up the guitar line seamlessly, for instance) is ALSO incredibly well done…but it’s all done in service to the emotional impact of the music. (The fact that you can see, on YouTube, two live performances of this piece that are 26 years apart, and are nearly note for note clean identical is also impressive to me…)

    Indeed, touching back on your original theme for the blog post – Rush’s YYZ is a beautiful structured piece that builds over time, and comes off of the Morse Code letters for YYZ.

    I’d have a blast watching Liquid Tension Experiment and Rush do a double header. And I think Mike Portnoy and Neil Peart doing Duelling Drum Solos (where one hands off to the other, improv style, and back and forth) might cause some sort of Kurzweilian percussion singularity….

    And then there’s

  145. On this, I strongly disagree. Pathfinder gives plenty of options for gussying up your tactical combat playing piece. it does not help you make characters. Indeed, they’re now going down the road of character class bloat that splatbooked 3.5 into an unplayable morass, though they’re taking that path more carefully and with greater measure.

    The problem here is combinatorial explosions.

    I never did see the problem with the combinatorial explosions given a DM in sync with the characters—which, to be sure, can be difficult in a con-type setting. Occasionally my group would run adventures with absolutely absurd characters, and the DM would simply match the powergaming right back (you ever see a dragon with rogue levels and sneak attack?). Alternatively, we’d also have situations in which the DM would simply disallow questionable character setups unless the player came up with a convincing back story, and certain nonsense was right out.

    Both 3e and 3.5 had poorly-laid-out skill systems, and that Pathfinder gets cleaned right up. The rest, I think, is a matter of personal taste, including

    The belief that game systems don’t have to reward story and character driven play, because “That’s the GM’s job…” is, well, something I disagree with. Rewarding story and character driven play is something that should be rewarded by the game system and the other players, and reinforced by the Game Master.

    Combat systems (granting that 3e/Pathfinder is somewhat on the baroque side) is really all that a system can implement clear rules for. Minimus is a nifty distillation of roleplaying, but it essentially takes precisely the same approach to story rewards as D&D—and then also punts combat to the DM in the same way. What 3e never did well (and Pathfinder could still use some work on) is explaining to DMs how to build experience and loot rewards for story completion, but I found that after running a few games it isn’t hard to integrate non-combat rewards into a D&D storyline.

  146. @esr
    > I might like that. Can you point me at examples?

    Not much feature-length to speak of, and what there is I don’t personally recommend. Dagger of Kamui takes place at the end of the Edo period and leads right into the Restoration, and at least pretends to do the historical-fiction thing but being a ninja tale obviously has a tenuous grasp on things. I clearly can’t recommend testosterone-laden tripe such as Ninja Scroll.

    More recently, Samurai Shamploo (serial-form long series) made some waves; it tries to mesh a ronin story with hip-hop much like (and in clear imitation of) how Cowboy Bebop mixed western/SF and jazz. It does a poor job; I can’t recommend.

    There was a passable show following a lady ronin called Kazamakase Tsukikage Ran. Action comedy, not bad if you’re into typical anime stuff, and ‘short’ at 13 episodes. I haven’t seen it since probably 2001 though, so I may have tinted glasses. Fluffy, probably give it a pass.

    The canonical Meiji ronin anime/manga is Rurouni Kenshin. The main TV show dragged on, though it had a few sublime moments. More important, though, it spawned the _Very Good_ 4-episode prequel, released here under the hideous title ‘Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal’. I highly recommend this, if you can find a copy of it (comes as two separate discs), as it stands strong on its own, but can’t recommend the main show to you.

    Actually, shit, I just remembered about ‘The Hakkenden,’ based on the epic novel Nansou Satomi Hakkenden, that deals with the Warring States period. It’s more supernatural jidaigeki than historical fiction, and I haven’t seen it in ages and ages, so I can’t give a verdict one way or the other, but it might be up your alley if you can find a copy (good luck!). I might try to hunt it down again myself.

    There are others out there that live in the Edo and Meiji periods, but I haven’t seen them all and I don’t want to give any verdicts sight-unseen.

  147. Interesting in the widely-ranging musical discussion is that European Renaissance sacred music hasn’t made an appearance. It’s almost an entirely different genre from the baroque and classical styles that supplanted it, and it’s notable in the current context for both its heavy use of tropes—often to the point of cliche—and the complex games the composers played, both based on pure mathematics and what wouldn’t be entirely out of place in modern avant-garde (such as writing pieces that made geometrical patterns when written on a page).

    It seems to me that comparing Renaissance practice to the baroque that followed, one can make a case for a more generalized version of Brozman’s thesis: That the mathematical complexity of music, including both rhythmic and harmonic components, can be an interesting metric. Perhaps through the last two centuries we ought to additionally consider the palette of instruments used—first the development of the European symphony, then the invention of electronic sound effects, and finally our current ability to create arbitrary synthetic instruments with Csound and friends.

    (The madrigal, of course, is another noteworthy form, but I’m not particularly familiar with its theory.)

  148. All Hasbro had to do to finish burying the OGL was to simply not reprint the 3.5 core rulebooks, focus on licensed properties (remember, they had Star Wars and at one point Harry Potter to carry them), claim that the terms of the licenses would prevent the OGL from touching those properties, and put out a small trickle of new product for their existing D&D lines.

    Do that from 2007 to 2009 and launch D&D 4th to fill the niche that’s collapsed without 3.5 as an active competitor, and put enough marketing mojo behind it, and you’ll get everyone who’s been starved for new campaign materials.

    Maybe, but if you starve the market like that for three years, you run the risk of killing tabletop RPG acquisition via your FLGS. Certainly you look like a worse bet for continued product. Game store owners need that steady stream to sell to steady customers. And Paizo could have done Pathfinder at any point, although they might not have been wise enough to see the need without the GSL to spur them on.

    I’m pretty happy with the way it worked out; it’s better for the hobby to have two significant companies capable of supporting D&D. And I say that as someone who’s a) played both of those flavors for at least a couple of years each, and b) vastly prefers one of them. Also c) doesn’t think either of them are particularly oriented towards supporting story. Kids these days. Play some Feng Shui. Or Amber. (But don’t salt your beer, that’s just weird.)

  149. @Cathy: “[Midcult] is the common people at their best, and [masscult] is the common people at their everyday level.”

    @esr: “Well, it’s a neat scheme, but I’m not sure the high-culture/midcult/masscult distinction is so easily drawn as all that.

    For example, consider the single band I’ve liked best since I discovered them in 2008, Liquid Tension Experiment. Check out Another Dimension or Biaxident, then tell me where they fall.

    This is clearly not masscult. These are world-class musicians at the top of their game. Midcult or high culture? The guardians of high culture would surely blench at the thought of allowing bunch of scruffy rock musicians in that door, but these guys play at a level even the pioneering ‘progressive’ acts of the 1970s never reached. To find their equals as technicians and expressive players you’d need to be looking at jazz and classical virtuosi. The idiom says “midcult” but the level of dedicated artistry and sheer excellence says ‘high culture’. You almost have have to be a musician to even understand that what they make look so effortless…isn’t. At all.”

    I didn’t get a chance to listen to them until now, having finished my day at the office, eaten dinner, blah blah blah..so sorry for the late response.

    WOW. These guys are good. I’m going to punch them into Pandora and see what else equally interesting turns up. (BTW, I’ve head good success generally with Pandora; it’s particularly good at re-finding songs I’ve heard once on the radio long ago and loved, but didn’t get the artist’s name or the name of the song.)

    As to classification, that’s easy — these guys are high culture. High level of creativity, doing avant garde things with the art form that will not be fully understood by all listeners, outside the box, and extremely high skill level. I really enjoyed listening to these pieces, but I’m sure that I’ve missed a great deal of subtleties. This is complex music.

    You seem to be saying that “scruffy rock musicians” can’t qualify as high culture because the Ivory Tower Guardians wouldn’t let them in, but that ignores much of the history. Look at Shakespeare’s plays, for example. No intellectual today would dare rate him as anything but high culture, but the reality is that he was extremely popular with all walks of life in his day. And make no mistake, he was actively catering to the popular taste by putting all sorts of fighting and hacking all over the place in his plays.

    Masscult, to me, is stuff that may be fun for everyone but has no deeper level to those who take the time to dig into it. Midcult also tends to consist of straightforward “plate glass” works, but it often has a deeper level that makes it thought-provoking. High culture can range anywhere from completely incomprehensible, with only poseurs claiming to understand it, to wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels that rewards serious study and analysis. LTE falls into the latter camp.

  150. @Charles Steward: “no real high art has been created since about 1900? – this is quasi-tautological if high art means art created by great artists who dedicate their life craft to serving aristocratic connoisseurship.”

    I hope you realize that my “1900″ remark was made somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, there’s a grain of truth to it. What has really happened is that the self-proclaimed “Guardians of High Art” — which is NOT synonymous with the artists themselves — have declared that anything that can be understood at all by Those Not In The Know cannot be considered high art. This is a 20th century phenomenon that did not exist in the world of Euripides, Shakespeare, or Mozart.

    And yes, the Guardians are overwhelmingly leftists. I can’t even call them “liberals”, which would be an insult to 19th century liberals. Look at the recent comments by Noam Chomsky on the raid that killed Bin Laden for an example of this idiocy.

  151. @Cathy: “As to classification, that’s easy — these guys are high culture.”

    And incidentally, the difference I see between LTE (high) and jazz (mid) is more about the audience at which it’s aimed than any judgement on the artistic quality of the music. The breadth of the audience was jazz at its height was much wider than I ever expect this type of prog rock to be.

    That said, I wouldn’t deny for a moment that the boundaries are fuzzy and any set of categories like this is not going produce a rigorous definition.

  152. >I’m going to punch them into Pandora and see what else equally interesting turns up.

    Guess what I seeded my Pandora station with? :-)

    >As to classification, that’s easy — these guys are high culture. High level of creativity, doing avant garde things with the art form that will not be fully understood by all listeners, outside the box, and extremely high skill level.

    And you think they would be recognized as such by the gatekeepers of high culture, the people who run art museums and operas and staff the New York Review of Books?

    >This is complex music.

    Yes. Yes it is. Since you like LTE, I have some other recommendations: Planet X, Porcupine Tree, Riverside, Opeth, Gordian Knot, Animals as Leaders. If you add these to your Pandora seeds, I confidently predict that good stuff will flow.

  153. http://www.your3dsource.com/guess-the-artist.html

    @Daniel Franke: “‘and my immediate reaction was, “Seriously? Do people struggle with this?’. I don’t like any of those paintings, but I don’t have any trouble telling at a glance which ones were made by an elephant.”

    I got four wrong and three right out of the seven, and I didn’t even try to distinguish between Pollack and Miotte. Yes, people seriously struggle with this.

    I attributed a Jackson Pollack to the preschooler, thought one of the elephant’s works and one of the pre-schooler’s were done by a “serious” modern artist, and attributed Jean Miotte’s work to the elephant.

    And you wonder why I disdain most of the visual art produced since 1900?????

  154. @Cathy: “As to classification, that’s easy — these guys are high culture. High level of creativity, doing avant garde things with the art form that will not be fully understood by all listeners, outside the box, and extremely high skill level.”

    @esr: “And you think they would be recognized as such by the gatekeepers of high culture, the people who run art museums and operas and staff the New York Review of Books?”

    Of course not; your question above was clearly rhetorical. And I do understand the point you are trying to make, namely that some artists and works are going to be too sophisticated to fall cleanly into midcult or masscult, but will fail to fall into the narrow range that is considered acceptable by the critics of their era.

    This actually raises an interesting question. What musical works written since 1970 would be generally recognized as high culture by the “standard arbiters”?

  155. > What musical works written since 1970 would be generally recognized as high culture by the “standard arbiters”?

    At least a few songs by Queen, I would hope. But not being an arbiter, what do I know?

  156. @Cathy:

    I think there might another explanation of the problem you describe (high art, lefties and all): Beauracracy.

    Leftism and beauracracy are mutually nurturing phenomena. Those who run art museums, operas etc are happy beauracrats. Those they employ are conformant with their beauracracy. Conformity does not produce good art. Neither it did good software – which is another form of art.

  157. >And I do understand the point you are trying to make, namely that some artists and works are going to be too sophisticated to fall cleanly into midcult or masscult, but will fail to fall into the narrow range that is considered acceptable by the critics of their era.

    Yes, exactly. One reason this is a salient issue to me is that I’m a fan of SF, which straddles the midcult/high-culture divide in your terms. But the gatekeepers of high culture either dismiss SF out of hand or praise the wrong authors and works for the wrong reasons.

    >This actually raises an interesting question. What musical works written since 1970 would be generally recognized as high culture by the “standard arbiters”?

    While it is possible there are many more obscure examples I don’t know about, the work of Philip Glass springs to mind.

  158. >This actually raises an interesting question. What musical works written since 1970 would be generally recognized as high culture by the “standard arbiters”?

    Shostakovich’s last three string quartets, 1970-1974. I don’t know #13 or #14 so well, but #15 is pretty amazing. And the viola sonata.

  159. Look at the recent comments by Noam Chomsky on the raid that killed Bin Laden for an example of this idiocy.

    Chomsky is a good refutation of the ill-conceived notion that IQ is a reliable indicator of intellectual worth.

  160. The problem is that the best, most interesting niche anime came during the 80s and early 90s when it was still being produced by, essentially, nerds in garages. Micro-budgets demanded low cel counts, but with moments of brilliance to overcome the technical limitations. cf. the origins of Gainax. One tended to find more variety then, and more risks. There were a lot of failures, but at least they were interesting failures.

    GAINAX was pretty unique in its day. The nerds in garages — otaku — were frowned upon and even feared in those days, and the writers, artists, and producers behind so many of the series that elicited nerdgasms from the otaku community probably took the attitude that they were just doing a job for whatever production company employed them. GAINAX is widely considered to be the first big otaku success story — doing what they love, for the love of it, and getting paid for it.

    By the way, as for historical anime I seem to recall watching an anime based on The Tale of Genji in my Japanese class once.

  161. Look at the recent comments by Noam Chomsky on the raid that killed Bin Laden for an example of this idiocy.

    What specific criticisms of Chomsky’s comments have you?

    I hear a lot of Chomsky dismissal, and even coinage of a new pejorative after him (“chomskyism”) hereabouts, but no substantive refutation of the points he raises. Chomsky’s geopolitical commentary boils down to this: Don’t point out the mote in your neighbor’s eye without first casting out the beam from your own.

    ESR says: Nobody rise to this bait, please.

  162. I think John Williams is the best living example of a musician who targets the masses yet receives praise from the “standard arbiters”. And he deserves it.

  163. @Jeff Read
    > the writers, artists, and producers behind so many of the series that elicited nerdgasms from the otaku community
    > probably took the attitude that they were just doing a job for whatever production company employed them.

    I think there’s plenty enough evidence to refute that, at least in large part, if you look at the kind of soul in the works of the young animators of, for instance, Urusei Yatusura, Nausicaä (future Eva creator Hideaki Anno was responsible for the God Warrior animation), and especially the coalescing of talent in the ridiculous Project A-ko, among others.

    > By the way, as for historical anime I seem to recall watching an anime based on The Tale of Genji in my Japanese class once.

    Yes; I chose not to mention it since Genji falls pretty well before the period esr was asking about, and I have not myself seen it. Nice book, though.

  164. @Roger Philips
    “Chomsky is a good refutation of the ill-conceived notion that IQ is a reliable indicator of intellectual worth.”

    Chomsky contributed more to Computer Sciences than all contributers to this blog (esr included) combined.

    However, there are few, if any, contributions to linguistics (his main field of work) that still stand, and the jury is out whether the balance of his contributions to linguistic will end positive.

    His contributions to politics seem to have influenced no one. At least in Europe you never ever hear of his political views.

    As the Germans say (a rephrase of the comment): Bildung schützt vor Torheit nicht!

  165. @Winter:

    > However, there are few, if any, contributions to linguistics (his main field of work) that still stand, and the jury is out whether the balance of his contributions to linguistic will end positive.

    I read that the isolated Piraha tribe in the Amazon does not have recursion in their language. This would seem to refute Chomsky’s most central theory that “recursion” is an essential part of human language and what defines us as human.

  166. @uma
    “I read that the isolated Piraha tribe in the Amazon does not have recursion in their language.”

    I do not believe this for a moment. Recursion in the language is part of a general human faculty. For instance, you cannot make compound tools without it. Without recursion, you cannot handle family trees. And there is no human people who do not understand the relative position of the grand-child of a brother of your father’s mother compared to the child of a sister of your father. Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence.

    Anyhow, almost all (if not all) data known about this tribe hase been published by a single (pair) of researchers. They seem to have strong opinions on many aspects of linguistics. I never trust exceptional reports that have not been corrobrated by others. And as this tribe is nearly unreachable, that is hardly possible.

    There might, however, be an explanation of their backwardness. The native Tasmanians were extremele isolated and were only a small population. The Tasmanians lost a lot of their technology. It seems that isolated communities of less than a few thousand individuals start to lose cultural complexity. It takes a certain number of people to support a full language or technologies like fire. If this Piraha tribe was really small and isolated for a few centuries, they might indeed lose cultural and linguistic complexity.

    But I really want to see independend corroboration of such losses before I believe them. Especially, as communities this small tend to die out if they do not exchange people, goods, and ideas with other communities.

    @uma
    “This would seem to refute Chomsky’s most central theory that “recursion” is an essential part of human language and what defines us as human.”

    I was mostly thinking of this Nature paper which demolished Chomsky’s “special status” of the human language faculty:
    Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Levinson, S. C., & Gray, R. D. (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, 473, 79-82. doi:10.1038/nature09923.

    Languages vary widely but not without limit. The central goal of linguistics is to describe the diversity of human languages and explain the constraints on that diversity. Generative linguists following Chomsky have claimed that linguistic diversity must be constrained by innate parameters that are set as a child learns a language1, 2. In contrast, other linguists following Greenberg have claimed that there are statistical tendencies for co-occurrence of traits reflecting universal systems biases3, 4, 5, rather than absolute constraints or parametric variation. Here we use computational phylogenetic methods to address the nature of constraints on linguistic diversity in an evolutionary framework6. First, contrary to the generative account of parameter setting, we show that the evolution of only a few word-order features of languages are strongly correlated. Second, contrary to the Greenbergian generalizations, we show that most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies. These findings support the view that—at least with respect to word order—cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states.

    But this was just the latest of a long string of developments that are showing Chomsky’s models are little more than clever mathematics.

  167. @Winter:

    > There might, however, be an explanation of their backwardness.

    You may be much better informed than I am on this. What I remember reading is that as a result of the lack of recurson they (the Piraha) seem to have no memory of themselves as a people for more than 2 generations back.

    Regarding the article you quote:

    > “Languages vary widely but not without limit.”

    Being myself a speaker of languages that belong to more than one family, I might not be easily inclined to believe this. The variation in how the languages work at a fundamental level is so vast. I personally consider indo-european languages to be relatively primitive and inferior languages.

    It might probably be difficult to discuss this question with someone who only speaks indo-euro languages. What I would say is that the difference between human languages is even more vast than the difference between computer languages. Some human languages are like Assembler and C (I would classify English and some other Indo-euro languages in this category). Other languages are like Lisp, Haskell, Erlang, and Clojure all rolled into one, and that is even an understatement on how vast the difference is.

  168. @uma
    “It might probably be difficult to discuss this question with someone who only speaks indo-euro languages.”

    The writers of the paper are really, really good linguists. Do not even for a moment assume they do not have a specification of every single human language on record at hand. The Max Planck institute where Levinson works houses probably the largest collection of speech recordings from minor languages in the world.

    You underestimate variation in Indo European langauges.

    > “Languages vary widely but not without limit.”

    This is variation on a different level than you mention. Linguists go past the actual vocabulary and tend to look at things like Verbs, Nouns, Subject, Object, Adverb etc. They ask questions like “Is the Verb always preceding the Object” and “Where does the Adverb go?”

    This particular study is about constituent order, eg, Subject Verb Object (as in English) versus S V1 O V2 (German) and a host of other variation of the form “the green tree” versus “the tree green” as seen in, eg, French.

    As far as I know (I still have to read the paper, I admit), they do not handle the differences between isolating languages (English, Mandarin) and agglutinating languages (Finnish, Turkish) or things like case and gender systems.

  169. @ Winter

    > This is variation on a different level than you mention. Linguists go past the actual vocabulary and tend to look at things like Verbs, Nouns, Subject, Object, Adverb etc. They ask questions like “Is the Verb always preceding the Object” and “Where does the Adverb go?”

    I was referring to the grammer, not just vocabulary words. Vocabulary words are easy to borrow and give. It’s fundamentally the grammer and how the language is constructed at a grammatic level that truly defines its capacity. Speaking of SVO orderings, some languages are perfectly capable of all 9 SVO ordering variations while being seemlessly understood 100% of the time !

    > You underestimate variation in Indo European langauges.

    You may be right. I was more referring to Europe proper. Surely, the indian languages differ quite a bit from the western european languages. If I look at the western european languages I don’t see that much variation even when considering the different subgroups (ie Germanic, Romance etc). French has superior qualities over English because it has gender. German, while having gender, complicates things unnecessarily by having the neutral gender. All in all, I think all these languages are quite similar in how they operate beneath the surface and they all share very similar limitations that define the language family as a whole.

  170. French has superior qualities over English because it has gender. German, while having gender, complicates things unnecessarily by having the neutral gender.

    You seem to be suggesting that the “best” language is one that has two, and only two, genders. On what basis?

  171. @uma
    “some languages are perfectly capable of all 9 SVO ordering variations while being seemlessly understood 100% of the time !”

    Most languages with case markers, like Latin have that. You can do that in many Germanic languages too.

    @uma
    “All in all, I think all these languages are quite similar in how they operate beneath the surface and they all share very similar limitations that define the language family as a whole.”

    Which was the message to take home from the linked paper: Related languages look the same. ;-)

    A Chomskyan Inherited Language Faculty would predict more random variation between languages as any reordering can be learned by a new generation. However, it was found that word order rules can be better explained by evolution from from shared ancestors than from any Inherited Language Faculty (Parameters and Settings).

    (I really must get that paper)

  172. @uma
    “French has superior qualities over English because it has gender. German, while having gender, complicates things unnecessarily by having the neutral gender.”

    Languages are not designed, they evolve. As such, there is no “best” language, and no “difficult” language. Every language has the same complexity and the same communicative value.

    However, languages differ in the complexity of their writing, which is not part of a natural language.

    And languages are good at expressing messages that are common for their speakers, and bad for those that are uncommon. So it is easy to differentiate family relations along female and male lines upto half a dozen degrees in Mandarin. Much more difficult for English people. Who cares if someone is a younger 8th cousin of my fathers mother instead of an older 7th cousin of my fathers dad? On the other hand, discussing US personal pension investment plans wrt tax laws in Mandarin might be a challenge.

  173. “The truth is I’d rather be part of that conversation than the one the art-for-art’s-sake aesthetes are having; the latter doesn’t seem to lead anywhere good.”

    One place the latter seems to lead is government funding. There is currently a debate going on here in the UK about reducing government funding for art projects. Almost needless to say, it’s the art-for-art’s-sake aesthetes who are complaining the loudest.

  174. @Winter + Phil R.

    Thanks for the paper. From the chart in the paper, it seems the authors, in addition to omitting agglutinative languages, have also not included the Afroasiatic language family in their analysis.

  175. @uma
    “have also not included the Afroasiatic language family in their analysis”

    You have to limit your analysis to families with sufficient coverage(coverage is always a problem). They were looking for some fundamental processes. Any group of language families would have sufficed.

  176. @Winter:

    > You have to limit your analysis to families with sufficient coverage(coverage is always a problem). They were looking for some fundamental processes. Any group of language families would have sufficed.

    I cannot easily agree with this. At a fundamental level the Afroasiatic families have such unique attributes it is almost impossible to omit it in any analysis which seeks sufficient “coverage”.

    I would though agree with the notion that human languages are equivalent (or share some universal features) in the sense that C and Lisp are equivalent because they both are Turing complete. That is such a low common denominator it’s almost meaningless.

  177. Hi, just wish to thank everyone that has posted music links so far.
    Coming from a very strict religious background my music exposure has been very limited to religious orientated and classical.
    My world is now a lot richer from being able to hear some of these artists, that I would have never found on my own.

  178. @Uma, I think it’s fair to say that some languages are better than others, but I’ve got to question your classification of English. English is one of the most information-dense, nuanced, and expressive languages in the world.

    And I will back up that assertion the moment you back up your assertion that gender makes a better language. Maybe you could justify it as parity information, but really all that does is add more data to the bitstream, which is not what you want.

  179. >@Uma, I think it’s fair to say that some languages are better than others, but I’ve got to question your classification of English. English is one of the most information-dense, nuanced, and expressive languages in the world.

    Yes. There is actual hard evidence for this in statistical comparisons of vocabulary sizes and information conveyed per word; there are several good articles on such comparisons in, for example, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Furthermore, English manages to be exceptionally expressive with a grammatical and phonological apparatus that is absurdly simple by world standards, making it one of the easiest languages for adult speakers to acquire. Both traits are results of English’s history as a double creole, which both gifted it with an extraordinarily large etymological stock and stripped its grammar to the running gears (twice).

    I am not uttering monolingual prejudice when I praise English; I was a crib bilingual and have spoken three other languages with fair fluency in my life. This direct experience is part of how I know that historical circumstances have hammered it into a really superb tool. While other languages can express nuances that English does does not capture well in specific semantic domains, English tops the league tables not just in its own special areas of expressive competence (business and science) but in overall breadth of expression as well. Strong evidence of this can be found in the frequency with which polylinguals who share a birth tongue other than English voluntarily code-switch to English (a phenomenon I have often observed personally).

  180. @Max E:

    > And I will back up that assertion the moment you back up your assertion that gender makes a better language

    Gender-free languages tend to create the kind of unisex societies that are characteristic of the US and Great Britain. Languages with gender create two parallel universes: one for males and one for females. The rules that apply to these parallel universes are totally different. Each of these universes packs much more information on its own. I would argue that it actually makes the datastream much shorter when you add gender to a language –> assuming of course nuance is importance.

    Now, whenever an expression crosses from one of these universes to the other it is often done to convey a much more denser meaning. For example, when you use a male form, in a sentence that refers to a female you can convey the meaning that the female is beating the male in their own male-dominated game. One tiny swap (replace default female form with male) and you’ve created an effect that could possibly take me an entire paragraph in English to convey with appropriate nuance.

    Another example: Suppose you are writing a love poem for a girl. If you use a male form to address her, you can easily convey the meaning that her ignoring you is coming harder on you that the mightiest of tough men crushing you. If in the next sentence you flip to female form, you can easily shift to making a statement on her feminine qualities. If you masterfully flip flop between the two forms you can create the kind of information-dense playfulness that is totally unachievable in English –> Even if you spend entire paragraphs trying to explain it. Remember, that eloquence is about conciseness and compactness of expression that conveys such dense and beautiful meaning, and in that context I would describe gender-neutral languages as inherently less eloquent.

    Other examples on this are many and plenty. Since I personally am a speaker of multiple languages belonging to different families (with English being the only gender-free language that I speak) I feel I have enough sampling points to render judgement on this.

    > I’ve got to question your classification of English. English is one of the most information-dense, nuanced, and expressive languages in the world

    I will attempt to reply to this in my reply to esr’s msg on this.

  181. English tops the league tables not just in its own special areas of expressive competence (business and science) but in overall breadth of expression as well. Strong evidence of this can be found in the frequency with which polylinguals who share a birth tongue other than English voluntarily code-switch to English (a phenomenon I have often observed personally).

    The US is a dominant power in (worldwide) business, science, technology, … so it is to be expected that its language would develop vocabulary to efficiently discuss these matters, and that it’s used as a lingua franca by non native speakers. Greek, Arab, Latin, French, … all had a similar status / function once.
    That doesn’t say anything about the intrinsic expressiveness of the English language.

    Re. case the polylinguals, I’d suggest that maybe the subject of the conversation selects the language ? When I discuss IT issues with my colleagues, 80% of what we say are English words, while we do share a common birth language other than English. This doesn’t happen when we discuss local politics or the wheather.

    With what little I know of about languages, imo languages that have a certain complexity, s.a. gender, inclination, elaborate verb modes, … are better suited to convey subtleties, complexities and abstractions, partly because they don’t have to rely solely on word order to convey meaning, allowing for more freedom of expression.

  182. >So it is to be expected that its language would develop vocabulary to efficiently discuss these matters … doesn’t say anything about the intrinsic expressiveness of the English language.

    Do you see that you’ve managed to contradict yourself here? As the vocabulary of a language grows, so does its expressiveness.

    >Re. case the polylinguals, I’d suggest that maybe the subject of the conversation selects the language?

    Of course it does. In general biglossic (dual-language) populations show a tendency to use one language (that of the successful cultural invader) for “outside” matters and the other for “inside” ones. I have observed this myself among English-fluent Danes and Germans, and it is a commonplace of the anthropological literature that you often see it in (for example) South American Indians who also speak Spanish.

    >With what little I know of about languages, imo languages that have a certain complexity, s.a. gender, inclination, elaborate verb modes, … are better suited to convey subtleties, complexities and abstractions, partly because they don’t have to rely solely on word order to convey meaning, allowing for more freedom of expression.

    Are you speculating, or reporting your experience of speaking such a language? Because I’ve spoken gendered languages, and my experience was that the feature was just overhead rather than a tool for generating subtle shades of meaning. I recall this particularly annoying me when I was learning French; I wanted gender to be a semantically generative feature and was dissapointed when it turned out not to be.

    I don’t entirely deny that such effects can happen – I’ve read, for example, that in Bantu languages there’s a rich form of pun-like humor that depends on deliberately inflecting nouns according to a grammatical class other than the “correct” one, and I believe that. But I don’t consider it obvious that elaborated grammar produces a greater expressive range than the extremely large vocabulary of an educated English-speaker.

  183. If you’ve ever done data compression of any kind, you know that the most compact way to send some information is not at all. Languages with grammatical gender force you to send more information than you actually *need* most of the time. When English speakers actually do need to convey those subtleties, it’s fine– we’ve got a massive catalog of synonyms for each word, all with different connotations.

    I personally am monolingual (after an abortive effort to learn Spanish in high school,) but I’ve asked my mother about this before. She’s natively an English speaker, but she knows five different languages, and her favorite is Persian. In Persian, not even the pronouns have gender– you can only say “it,” not “he” or “she.” You can only convey gender by explicitly saying “man” or “woman.” If you were correct, Persian would be an awful language for conveying subtleties, but my mother will rave for hours about how great Persian poetry is.

  184. @esr:

    > Furthermore, English manages to be exceptionally expressive with a grammatical and phonological apparatus that is absurdly simple by world standards, making it one of the easiest languages for adult speakers to acquire.

    Learning English might be easy if you all you want is to achieve basic communication. If you want to master the kind of prose found in Shakespeare or the King James bible then it’s immensely difficult. Other languages while presenting a steeper curve at the beginning are far easier to attain mastery afterwards.

    > Both traits are results of English’s history as a double creole, which both gifted it with an extraordinarily large etymological stock and stripped its grammar to the running gears (twice).

    I would argue that expressiveness and grammer are mutually exclusive phenomena. There are languages that have very complicated grammers that make your head spin which at the same time have poor expressiveness and make for very poor tools of communication. I call them the C++ languages of humans. English is more like C. A primitive language which over the decades and centuries people have still managed to use in remarkable ways.

    > English tops the league tables not just in its own special areas of expressive competence (business and science) but in overall breadth of expression as well.

    If WWII ended in a different way, all the scientific papers that much of the world would be cranking out would have possibly been in German. If Esperanto was invented by a non Jew (at a time of exceptional antisemitism) it may have become the global language of communication. English’s success is due to the success of the british in colonizing the world and spreading their language to the different corners of the earth. Later on, it is attributable to the rise of America as the dominant super power. I would not try to explain it by any other means. If you are the global leader in science and business it is only natural that your language would become the frame of reference for these two domains.

    > Strong evidence of this can be found in the frequency with which polylinguals who share a birth tongue other than English voluntarily code-switch to English (a phenomenon I have often observed personally).

    This is in part due to reasons given earlier on America’s leadership of globalization, science and business — hence coining much of vocabulary of this age. It may also be that English presents a good least common denominator which is easy to revert to in cases where vocabulary words or entire expressions are absent from that other tongue.

  185. >If you masterfully flip flop between the two forms you can create the kind of information-dense playfulness that is totally unachievable in English

    You underestimate what can be done with vocabulary and allusion in English (again, I speak as a polylingual myself).

    I think I understand why; the games poets use in English are not only quite difficult for a non-native speaker to understand, it is easy to completely miss that they’re being played! In one respect, the sort of coding by marked grammar you describe is functionally better; it’s a clearer signal that the writer is going all sideband on you and you’d better pay attention.

    The sort of playfulness you describe is normally achieved in English with several devices that are not strictly grammatical. They include (a) use of allusion and imagery, (b) use of dialect words and archaisms, (c) register-shifting between formal and informal modes of English, (d) use of words which are highly emotionally loaded and not in everyday vocabulary, and other similar devices many of which rely on the very large vocabulary of English.

    tl;dr – English relies on vocabulary to convey subtleties other languages code in grammar.

  186. > tl;dr – English relies on vocabulary to convey subtleties other languages code in grammar.

    Let’s not forget that information can be encoded in judicial /breaking/ of grammar in English, too.

  187. >If you want to master the kind of prose found in Shakespeare or the King James bible then it’s immensely difficult.

    That is quite true. Have you actually thought about why?

    It is because English has a huge range of acceptable vocabulary (and to a lesser extent grammatical) variations which convey semantic subtleties. Your mention of the King James Bible is apt; just recently I wrote in a technical paper “Suffer not thy protocol to fall into the hands of bureacrats, for they will smother it in features.” I code-shifted into a dialect of English that has connotations of timeless normative authority, but which used in this way has a tone of irony as well.

    You are correct that mastery of English is difficult. That is true precisely because English has such a huge expressive range. More: because the mechanisms that extend that range are primarily lexical rather than grammatical, you can’t pick them up by internalizing yet another odd inflectional construction; you have to be immersed in the literature and culture of English to use them – in fact, without that immersion, you may not even notice that sideband coding is going on at all.

    >If WWII ended in a different way, all the scientific papers that much of the world would be cranking out would have possibly been in German.

    You and others keep saying things like this as though it’s an argument against the expressiveness of English. It isn’t. Instead you are exactly documenting a principal reason that English has a huge range of expression and subtlety. Because English-speakers win wars and dominate commerce and science, English is the contact language that never rests. It’s developed an actual habit of importing other languages’ vocabularies wholesale, and has evolved under intense selective pressure to be all things to all manner of people.

  188. >Let’s not forget that information can be encoded in judicial /breaking/ of grammar in English, too.

    Quite right. But that’s exactly the mechanism uma knows of from highly inflected languages. It’s actually less important in idiomatic English than in, say, Swahili where you can make quasi-puns by misusing noun classes, or Chinese where you can comically use the wrong tone.

    uma’s mistake is that he thinks code-shifting with marked or “broken” grammar gives other languages an expressive range English can’t match. He’s wrong, but it’s not a crazy mistake – a lot of English speakers only inhabit a tiny fraction of the language’s semantic space.

  189. >If you were correct, Persian would be an awful language for conveying subtleties, but my mother will rave for hours about how great Persian poetry is.

    She’s quite right, incidentally. I don’t speak it myself, but I do know something about the Persian poetic tradition and have read good translations. There are poetic languages which can claim to match its luminous delicacy (and one of those is English at the top of its game) but none that clearly exceed it.

  190. > Do you see that you’ve managed to contradict yourself here? As the vocabulary of a language grows, so does its expressiveness.

    My point was that the expressiveness of the English language, especially in is a byproduct of the cultural dominance of the US, not an intrinsic quality of the language – which I though was what you were claiming.
    Of course I don’t doubt that expressiveness gows with vocabulary.

    > Are you speculating, or reporting your experience of speaking such a language?
    I’m reporting my experience of reading such languages. I’m thinking of Latin mostly, and German to a lesser extend.
    It’s been too long since I read anything in those languages, so can’t give real examples, but I do remember several discussions on what , say, Cicero in a speech for the Roman Senate, was trying to achive by his choice of words, the way they were grouped together or kept apart in a sentence (free word orde !), his choice of one grammatical construct over another that would have been expected, and all the other the stuff between the lines.

    >tl;dr – English relies on vocabulary to convey subtleties other languages code in grammar.
    something like that, yes.
    Except that in some languages, you can use vocabulary and grammar.

  191. @Max E:

    > If you were correct, Persian would be an awful language for conveying subtleties, but my mother will rave for hours about how great Persian poetry is.

    Persian poetry is indeed great and easily the most beautiful of all indo-european language . The persian language has no gender but what it lacks in gender it easily makes up for from the vast amount of hacks and spiritual/devotional vocabulary it borrowed from arabic. Some 70 % of its vocabulary comes from arabic including almost the entire vocabulary for all things related to love and spirituality. The greatest of all persian poets (Hafez, Rumi, and Saadi) invented styles where they even alternated between persian and arabic within the same poetry to demonstrate their mastery of both tongues.

    It is also worth pointing out that the persian language was very primitive and inadequate prior to the rise of Islam. So much so that the language of the mighty Persian Empire was Aramaic – which as we all know is a semitic language closely related to Arabic and Hebrew.

    After the rise of Islam, the persian language went through 200-300 years of heavy hacking and modification to give it the inherent music of the Arabic language (called Vazn) . This has resulted in an almost entirely new language. Add to that the fact that due to Persia’s proximity to Arabia, the importance of vowels (important in many other indo-euro languages) has declined over the centuries and millenia. Fewer vowels certainly helps poeming. The entire tradition of Persian poetry after Islam, follows arabic meter. Arabic meter itself is hardwired (inherent) into the Arabic language.

    Persian poetry can be considered as an extension of the arabic poetic artform which itself is at least 2500 yrs old. Since persian is an indo-european language its poetry tends to be far more translatable into English than Arabic poetry which is much more concise. I would personally argue that Arabic poetry is in a league of its own. Unmatched by any other literature with the exception of Persian literature. But that is more of a personal taste. Quantitatively, Arabic poetry is a much more vast as a tradition compared to Persian. Qualitatively, the gap is much closer with all the advantages of Arabic poetry strictly coming from the raw language power advantages of Arabic. What other language would allow a tribe to effortlessly poem its entire history in a million-verse perfectly-rhymed epic poem ? The whole exercise is totally unthinkable – let alone feasible – in any western language. I wonder if you ever watched “Questions to the Prime Minister” in the British Parliament. I personally love watching that and the witty arguments of the opposing sides. In Arabic, they do the same thing but with totally improvised poetry. It’s called “debate poetry”. And if you enjoy “Questions to the Prime Minister” as I do, you will enjoy debate poetry a 100 times more ! There are even reality TV shows dedicated to this form of insane witchcraft.

  192. @Uma
    > The persian language has no gender but what it lacks in gender it easily makes up for from the vast amount of hacks and spiritual/devotional
    > vocabulary it borrowed from arabic.
    Well there you go. That’s more or less what we do.

    > In Arabic, they do the same thing but with totally improvised poetry. It’s called “debate poetry”. And if you enjoy “Questions to the Prime Minister”
    > as I do, you will enjoy debate poetry a 100 times more ! There are even reality TV shows dedicated to this form of insane witchcraft.
    Here we call it “freestyling.” Freestyling is done competitively at events called “rap battles.” It’s not considered “high art” but I still find it incredible to behold.

  193. >My point was that the expressiveness of the English language, especially in is a byproduct of the cultural dominance of the US, not an intrinsic quality of the language – which I though was what you were claiming.

    I’m not even sure languages have “intrinsic” qualities, so, no.

    >Except that in some languages, you can use vocabulary and grammar.

    Sure, you can do that in English in a comparatively minor way too, so what? What matters isn’t the mechanisms involved, or their relative contribution, but total expressive range. It’s not just that English is hard to beat under present-day conditions of Anglosphere dominance, either – looking at history via treatments of the subject like Ostler’s Empires of the Word, it seems unlikely there has been a language with the expressive range of English in the entire history of human culture. Because there are more things in our heaven and Earth than there used to be, and English has cheerfully swiped or invented vocabulary for all of them.

  194. Max E.

    > Well there you go. That’s more or less what we do.

    Not really. While English is good at borrowing vocabulary, there has been no phenomenon in the history of English to hack the language so the entire musical patterns of other languages get incorporated into English. Take for example the inherent music of the Romance languages. Isn’t it a wonderful excercise listening to the music of an italian lady and her daughter in law arguing with one another other across their balconies in old-town italy. It is beautiful. It is operatic. English would have to lift that entire music wholesale from the italian language to be “hacked enough” to the same degree that Persian went through. In fact, many argue that the impact of Arabic on Persian is even stronger than the impact Latin on Romance languages! That is how much hacking the language went through in the 200-300 years after the rise of Islam.

    > Here we call it “freestyling.” Freestyling is done competitively at events called “rap battles.” It’s not considered “high art” but I still find it incredible to behold.

    The analogy is very weak. Add to that the fact that rap and the “beat” are realtively recent good hacks into English. I share your enthusiasm about freestyling though. A particularly good phenomenon is that English is acquiring the kind of conciseness that other languages have had for millenia. For example, in English the famous “What’s up ?” expression has evolved into “Sup ?”. That is definitely a step in the right direction which would have been unthinkable and improper 50 or 100 years ago.

  195. >[I wrote:] Because there are more things in our heaven and Earth than there used to be, and English has cheerfully swiped or invented vocabulary for all of them.

    No other language, ever, has adapted to such a wide range of speaker populations and been so readily acquired by adult speakers of other birth tongues – and I’m including other major trade/hegemony languages like French, Latin, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Malaysian, and Swahili. Oster discusses this in detail in Empires of the Word.

    Accordingly, those of you who think the success of English is a sort of accidental byproduct of Anglo-American hegemony need to think again. One of the wellsprings of American power is our historically unmatched ability to assimilate immigrants. How could the exceptional ease with which English is learned as a second language not be a contributing factor in this? Some of the causal arrows run from English to English-speakers…

    It is worth noting that some other languages match English on this metric – trade pidgins, mostly. (Doubly-creolized, English is structurally a lot like a trade pidgin.) Their speakers, however, lack English’s huge vocabulary and accumulated cultural capital.

  196. >While English is good at borrowing vocabulary, there has been no phenomenon in the history of English to hack the language so the entire musical patterns of other languages get incorporated into English.

    We haven’t stolen this because we don’t need it. If we ever do, we will. No, I’m not joking or being ironic.

  197. > A particularly good phenomenon is that English is acquiring the kind of conciseness that other languages have had for millenia. For example,
    > in English the famous “What’s up ?” expression has evolved into “Sup ?”. That is definitely a step in the right direction which would have
    > been unthinkable and improper 50 or 100 years ago.
    I think what’s closer to the truth is that such phenomena would not have been documented in writing due to the illiteracy of the un-pretentious social classes. One example of a body of English work which *was* geared toward the masses was Shakespeare’s writing. There you see abbreviations like on+it –> on’t.

    And there are some abbreviations so old that many don’t know their origin. Like “o’clock,” which used to be “of the clock.”

  198. @ Max E.

    > One example of a body of English work which *was* geared toward the masses was Shakespeare’s writing. There you see abbreviations like on+it –> on’t.

    You make a good point. I wonder though whether shakespeare’s vocabulary here was “coined” or whether it was a mere reflection of the way the masses spoke (on it = on’t). You maybe better informed than this than I am. In the point I was trying to make, I was referring to acquiring conciseness in the natural everyday speak of the masses as opposed to mere literary devices cleverly manipulated by reigning god of the english language himself – Shakespeare.

  199. @ esr

    > and I’m including other major trade/hegemony languages like French, Latin, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Malaysian, and Swahili. Oster discusses this in detail in Empires of the Word.

    I will read this book before I make a up my mind on whether to dismiss this as typical anglo self-glorification. I am surprised though that you mention Swahili. Sawhili is the native language of such small number of Africans. Yet it has become the lingua franca of eastern Africa. Without conquest. With the economic/political dominance of anyone.

  200. @Uma
    Either Shakespeare (or another poet) made it up to make iambic pentameter easier, or it was a popular invention to make conversation easier. In either case, it would have been an enhancement to the conciseness of the language. Furthermore, one use would have led to another. And the fact that it was even possible at all shows how hackable English is.

  201. >I will read this book before I make a up my mind on whether to dismiss this as typical anglo self-glorification.

    You should. It opened my eyes to a lot of things.

    It turns out, for example, that major trade languages and pidgins tend have a lot in common with each other. Ostler says the three most successful trade languages of all time, measured by ability to co-opt adult speakers from wildly differing language families, are all SVO isolational; he thinks this is how adult acquisition gets easiest. (The languages are English, Mandarin Chinese, and Malaysian.).

    He also explains that English is a particularly odd outlier because Germanic languages in general are very poor at spreading beyond their hearth areas. Not as bad as Arabic, which has proved completely unable to spread outside areas where closely-related languages were already spoken despite immense religious prestige, but it is notable that over much of the Germanic hearth area the descendants of German speak descendants of Latin.

    Fascinating book.

  202. @esr:

    > Not as bad as Arabic, which has proved completely unable to spread outside areas where closely-related languages were already spoken despite immense religious prestige

    I would actually disagree with this observation. While the entire north of africa was arabized, I wouldn’t call the native languages there as “closely related” in the same sense that Dutch and German say are closely related. Ancient egyptian language was different from the semitic languages. Possibly as far as the slavic tongues are from Germanic tongue. What greatly helped the spread of arabic were the brilliant grammer books written by Persian scholars which made it so easy for Sufi orders to Arabize their regions.

    > He also explains that English is a particularly odd outlier because Germanic languages in general are very poor at spreading beyond their hearth areas.

    This would actually seem to contradict with DNA evidence esr. What DNA evidence has taught us in the last 5 yrs or so (and I am quoting my friends who work in this area here) is that much of English History taught in the Books about Germanic displacement of celts was a load of bullocks. DNA suggests that more than 80% of the males in Britain are descendants of hunter gatherers who moved into the Isles right after the ice melted. The remaining 20% is the result of all other conquests of britain in history. What this would seem to suggest is that the replacement of the native language of the brits by a Germanic tongue happened due to “elite dominance” and not due to population displacement and genocide against the native Britons. Which kind of goes against this theory of Germanic inability to spread beyond its natural zone.

    I will definitely read the book though. It definitely sounds like an interesting read.

  203. >I would actually disagree with this observation. While the entire north of africa was arabized, I wouldn’t call the native languages there as “closely related” in the same sense that Dutch and German say are closely related.

    Read Ostler, he addresses this case directly. But he does not note that in the case of North Africa, the picture is complicated by the fact that over much of it the speakers of non-Afro-Semitic languages were simply wiped out rather than being Arabized. This is particularly so in Libya, which despite having been the location of the Pentapolis in classical times is now almost entirely populated by descendants of incoming Badawi from the Arabian Peninsula. Causality may run both ways, actually; it may be that one reason the Mohammedan conquest was so brutal was that the natives found linguistic assimiliation to the invaders extremely difficult.

    >What this would seem to suggest is that the replacement of the native language of the brits by a Germanic tongue happened due to “elite dominance” and not due to population displacement and genocide against the native Britons. Which kind of goes against this theory of Germanic inability to spread beyond its natural zone.

    Huh? I’d say it reinforces it. Latin-speaking dominant elites were able to impose their language on Germans, after all. But Norman Vikings learned French, and the Rus Vikings ended up speaking Slavic. England is the only known case of successful imposition of a Germanic language by a dominant elite. That’s precisely why Ostler characterizes it as an outlier, and I agree.

  204. @ esr:

    > England is the only known case of successful imposition of a Germanic language by a dominant elite. That’s precisely why Ostler characterizes it as an outlier, and I agree.

    Ok I misunderstood what you were saying earlier. I agree.

    > But he does not note that in the case of North Africa, the picture is complicated by the fact that over much of it the speakers of non-Afro-Semitic languages were simply wiped out rather than being Arabized

    He’s definitely off by a wide margin on this. Libya is far from being predominantly Arab (lineage wise) even though linguistically and culturally it is. The population of Libya that is traceable to the Arabian plate is probably no more than 30 or 40 percent. And this would include all migrations from Arabia, starting from neolithic era, to Phoenicians, to the post Muhammad conquests, and all the way to the bedouin (badawi) migrations that followed centuries later. One of the defining features of semites is that they are pretty meticulous about keeping genealogies of their tribes (similar to the bible: X son of Y son of Z etc) and if I were to guess, I would say that the most Arab (lineage-wise) of the north African countries is most likely Algeria. I would have to check with someone who knows this region better that I do. My knowledge (culture, music, languages etc) is more limited to the middle east proper. I will definitely read Oster’s book. Sounds interesting enough to be the next on the agenda for me. I would guess though that that Oster did not call this one right.

  205. >I would guess though that that Oster did not call this one right.

    You missed the “not”. That one was me, not Ostler, based on recent reading about the history of Libya when trying to get context for the civil war there. Could be my sources were wrong about the etholinguistic composition of the country, or it could be yours are; I won’t argue the point, as I have little other knowledge that connects me with the topic.

  206. Because there are more things in our heaven and Earth than there used to be, and English has cheerfully swiped or invented vocabulary for all of them.

    Greater love for his language hath no man than this, than that he lay down a great honking slab of new idiom that later becomes popular.

    Shakespeare and the authors of the King James Bible have it made. Me, I’m still working on it.

  207. >Shakespeare and the authors of the King James Bible have it made. Me, I’m still working on it.

    Hm. A worthy goal indeed. I guess I’ve managed the next best thing, increasing the visibility and circulation of hacker jargon by an order of magnitude or two. I invented a bit of it (“bondage-and-discipline language” was mine from ancient USENET days) but most of it was transmission from a small subculture that later became a startlingly large one.

    This makes me wonder. Did Shakespeare really invent all those idioms himself, or did he have an equivalent of the hacker culture behind him, a minority group of linguistic innovators for whom he served as a conveyor belt into mainstream English? Theater people and criminals (two closely associated groups in Elizabethan London) have always tended to develop their own cant; indeed, Polari jargon in 20th-century London was still shared by both four centuries later and has been one of the prominent sources of new lexical items in modern British English (including, for example, the term “chav”).

    I’m just speculating, but I suspect that if we had primary sources to check we’d find that Shakespeare didn’t act alone :-).

  208. @Phil:

    King James bible is the greatest ever work of translation. Strangely it was undertaken by a “committee” ! Makes you wonder if the invisible hand of the master manipulator of the universe wasn’t at play.

  209. I’m just speculating, but I suspect that if we had primary sources to check we’d find that Shakespeare didn’t act alone :-).

    Or at all, if you believe some people :).

    In any case, posterity is at least as likely to remember the popularizer of an idiom as its creator (as I don’t have to tell you, of all people). I’d be happy to be either, and I’d like to think I have the equanimity not to insist on being the one that gets remembered.

    And now, having remembered this, I’m going to stop before I increase my suspicion that I’m instrumentally indistinguishable from a fanboy to intolerable levels.

    @uma

    I don’t think it takes a miracle for a committee to do good work. It’s a bit of an outlier as situations go, but it’s not unheard of, especially when the members are each smart, well-motivated and animated by a vision broadly congruent with the others’. The best other example I can think of is the Federalist Papers, and the disputes over whether some of them were written by Hamilton, Madison, or collaboratively by both.

  210. I’m coming in late, and I still need to read the comments. I’m putting in a good word for Messiaen as an excellent late Romantic composer.

    That’s very plausible about Tolkien’s dwarves valuing honesty and straightforwardness…. though if The Hobbit is canonical (perhaps it shouldn’t be considered so, since the elves are very different from LOTR elves), we start out with seeing dwarves hire a thief.

    On the other hand, tricksters don’t seem all that common in most genre fantasy, unless a quick scan of memory just isn’t turning them up. The only thing I can think of where trickery and illusion is a major theme is the Harry Potter books.

  211. That’s very plausible about Tolkien’s dwarves valuing honesty and straightforwardness…. though if The Hobbit is canonical (perhaps it shouldn’t be considered so, since the elves are very different from LOTR elves), we start out with seeing dwarves hire a thief.

    I’m to understand that The Hobbit is canonical as the perspective of Bilbo — an unreliable narrator.

  212. Some maqam. I recommend listening to this– it varies very rapidly (much less repetition than most music, though I have no doubt I’m missing a lot of what was going on), and I liked some of it very much.

    Brozman is at least competent.. I have my doubts about rhythms is occupying vs. occupied cultures. though there might be differences in cultures that have marching vs. those that don’t. In any case, getting a 3/4 rhythm while tapping with alternate hands (the easiest exercise in the essay) was fun, and the more complex patterns might be worth pursuing.

    I’m not sure you folks have current ideas about what high art critics like. Who are you thinking of?

  213. @Nancy Lebovitz:

    Munir Bashir, the elder Oud player, is one of the greatest in the history of the instrument.

    What you posted is actually generic maqam and not to be confused with what is called “Iraqi Maqam”, which is a unique and separate art form accompanied by singing. Iraqi Maqam’s golden era lasted until the exodus of the Baghdad jewish community (50s). With the loss of Baghdad’s jews the knowledge of how to make some of the musical instruments disappeared and the instrumental sounds on Iraqi maqams never quite measure up to the pre-50s sounds.

    My favorite of the maqams (scales) is called “Saba”. An Egyptian girl (Oud student) plays solo maqam Saba below:

  214. @Tom DeGisi

    > Well they did borrow most of their final output from William Tyndale.
    “One estimation suggests the New Testament in the King James Version is 83% Tyndale’s, and the Old Testament 76%.”

    It thought it was a committee of several dozen poeple which translated the KJV. They had to have based on it on something (ie the works of the scholars before them).

    @Phil R.

    > The best other example I can think of is the Federalist Papers

    I don’t think the federalist papers were a committee work in the same way the KJV was. A committee of several dozen is quite different from a collaboration of two. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that the optimum number of people on a committee – any committee – is ZERO :-)

  215. uma,

    > They had to have based on it on something (ie the works of the scholars before them).

    Sure. But much of the genius of the King James Version is the genius of Tyndale shining through.

    Yours,
    Tom

  216. Cowboy Bebop is one of those series I want to like more than I actually do. I prefer Joss Whedon’s interpretation of the same idea in Firefly. But Satoshi Kon is truly great.

    For my money, the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex prequel series and movie (Solid State Society) are not only better than the theatrical releases, they’re some of the best cyberpunk made anywhere.

    Anime shies away from Warring States (late 16th century) and Bakumatsu (mid-19th century) dramas, perhaps because the annual NHK Taiga series covers this ground (with the occasional foray back to the Heian Period).

    Unfortunately, I don’t think NHK has ever tried to market a Taiga series in the U.S.

    Anime takes more interest in the early Meiji (such as Samurai X) and steam punk (Steamboy). Moribito is set in an alternate Heian Period universe, and features an honest-to-goodness adult female protagonist.

  217. Patrick M:
    > Which, of course, brings us back around to art that any self-respecting nerd should know by heart — the Doctor Who theme song.

    The Pertwee/Baker version, with sting and middle 8, is the default ringtone on my Evo. You do *not* want that going off on you overnight, believe me.

  218. >P.S. It is a pity that there is no chapter about gpsd…

    Yes, it is. I could have written a good chapter, and it would have been an excellent fit for the book.

  219. Contributing

    Dozens of volunteers worked hard to create this book, but there is still lots to do. You can help by reporting errors, by helping to translate the content into other languages and formats, or by describing the architecture of other open source projects. Please contact us the coordinators for various translations listed below, or mail us directly at aosa@aosabook.org if you would like to start a new translation or write a chapter yourself.

    New chapters are being written on Mailman, SQLAlchemy and PyPy.

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