Wednesday, October 25, 2023

“As an attorney who is also a Christian”: Jenna Ellis’s statement on entering her guilty plea in the Georgia election case

At the hearing where she entered her guilty plea in the Fulton County, Georgia, election subversion case, Jenna Ellis appealed to her religion: “As an attorney who is also a Christian, I take my responsibilities as a lawyer very seriously and I endeavor to be a person of sound moral and ethical character in all of my dealings.” As an atheist, I find such a statement both infuriating and telling: it implies that religion is necessary for good moral behavior (which it is not) and that, along with others who think like her, Ellis would behave immorally and unethically if she didn't have her religion to keep such behavior in check. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 25 October 2023)

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

On not finishing Denise Levertov’s “Collected Poems” on her 100th birthday today

As Tom Deveson reminded me this morning, it's my teacher Denise Levertov's 100th birthday (24 October 1923-20 December 1997). I've been reading one poem of hers almost every day since 25 May 2020, and posting a quotation from each poem after I read it. I've missed a few days here and there, and I've taken breaks because of vacations, but if I had missed fourteen fewer days, I would have had the nice coincidence of reading the last poem in her "Collected Poems" today. It's not something I wish I had planned; it would only have been "insignificant but touching", in W. G. Sebald's phrase, if it had happened by chance. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 24 October 2023)

Monday, October 23, 2023

A Basel German Rhyming Dictionary in a bookstore window

This morning, I walked past a bookstore with a Basel German rhyming dictionary in the window. For this text, I looked for an estimate of how many people speak the language, but I couldn't find one, so I'll just say that for Basel-Stadt, the number must be less than 200,000. It's somewhat surprising that a publisher would put out a rhyming dictionary for such a small population. Yet the percentage of people writing rhymes in Basel is relatively high: participants in Fasnacht, Basel's carnival, write many verses every year, both long rhyming poems handed out during the day at the parades and short rhymed verses sung as "Schnitzelbangg" in the evenings. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 23 October 2023)

Sunday, October 22, 2023

From abstractions and gerund phrases to images and conjugated verbs in my poetry and songwriting course

As the students otherwise write flat poems full of abstractions, my main focus in my poetry and songwriting course is always on poems grounded in images. But even when the students begin to write better poems with images that express rather than name abstractions, they often share another weakness: they write in fragments based on gerund phrases rather than in complete sentences with main clauses with conjugated verbs. It's not hard to turn the gerunds in those phrases into conjugated verbs with clear subjects, and when they do, their poems get even better. Once they've established a foundation of images and main clauses, they can then reach for abstractions and fragments. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 22 October 2023)

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Compositions by Geri Allen and Wayne Shorter at a concert by William Evans, Roberto Koch, and Jorge Rossy

I continue to appreciate the choices of repertoire I've been hearing at jazz concerts recently. This evening at the Bird's Eye in Basel, two pieces played by Williams Evans (piano), Roberto Koch (bass), and Jorge Rossy (drums) especially stood out for me: "Soul Beir" by pianist Geri Allen (1957-2017), from her 1998 album "The Gathering" (which Evans introduced as by his "homegirl", as they both grew up in Detroit, where I was born), and "Rio", by saxophonist Wayne Shorter (1933-2023), which was originally recorded for a 1967 Lee Morgan session only released in 1978. It was moving to hear compositions by two great musicians who died in the last few years. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 21 October 2023)

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Wolfgang Muthspiel, Scott Colley, and Brian Blade at Atlantis in Basel

At last night's concert at Atlantis in Basel, guitarist and bandleader Wolfgang Muthspiel joked that the title track of his new album with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade, "Dance of the Elders", may have been based on seeing elderly folk dancers. But during their tour, he had realized that it could refer to him and his fellow musicians. When Muthspiel put aside his classical guitar and stood up to play electric, he swayed back and forth to the grooves. Colley danced with his bass, especially during his solos. Sitting behind his drums, Blade danced with his sticks, brushes, mallets, and hands, smiling and often laughing with his bandmates' ideas. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 19 October 2023)

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Listening to Carly Bley last weekend and learning today that she died yesterday (1936-2023)

On Saturday, I shuffled my music collection to look for suggestions to listen to, and I chose the 2013 album "Trios" (ECM) by composer-pianist Carla Bley (1936-2023) with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow (her partner for 30+ years). While listening to the album's gorgeous chamber jazz that night and the next morning, I discovered that Bley was 87 years old. I knew she had been ill for several years, so when my phone notified me just now about a post on Substack called "Carla Bley", I knew she must be gone. While I listened to the album on Sunday, though, she was still with us, and her music remains. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 18 October 2023)

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Unexpected covers of Joni Mitchell songs

When I saw mandolinist Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau in Zurich on 17 November 2017, I hadn't yet heard their 2017 album "Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau". So when they started playing the introduction to a song I was sure I knew, I was thrilled when Thile sang Joni Mitchell's "Marcie" from her 1968 album "Songs to a Seagull". Recently, in anticipation of guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel's concert in Basel tomorrow, I listened to his new album "Dance of the Elders" with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade without checking the track list. And once again I was thrilled by a Joni Mitchell tune — "Amelia" from her 1976 album "Hejira". (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 17 October 2023)

Monday, October 16, 2023

On grading in trains in France in the late 1990s

When Andrea lived in France from 1996 to 2000, I frequently took the train back and forth from Basel to Bordeaux (where she was for one year) and Poitiers (where she was for three years). I planned to use the train time for grading whenever the Basel semester was going on, and sometimes I could get a lot of work done on the long trips. But very often, it turned out, people would ask me what I was doing and then start a conversation with me. If I wanted to be left alone, it was better to just read, since nobody wonders what you're doing if you're staring at a book. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 16 October 2023)

Sunday, October 15, 2023

On a quotation attributed to Hannah Arendt

In the last week, I keep seeing a quotation attributed to Hannah Arendt (1906-1975): "The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism." While it does sound a bit like Arendt's voice, I have not been able to find a single quotation that says where she said it. As I've noted before about other popular quotations, its spread on the internet makes it nearly impossible to figure out what text it's from or even whether Arendt said it all. And without a reference to its source, it's just a statement that is validated by Arendt's name and reputation. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 15 October 2023) 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

On the moment when children stop being interested in picture books

Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote yesterday on his blog "Some Flowers Soon" about putting away the picture books now that his children have outgrown them. I how noticed the same moment around 2013 when my youngest, Sara, was seven. While this moment led Jeremy to reflect on the magic of rhyme, it made me think about collecting: for example, I realized that I would soon no longer have a complete collection of books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. The last one we bought was "Superworm" from 2012. (Looking Donaldson up on Wikipedia to see how many of their books we now don’t have – nine! — I discovered that her maiden name was Shields!) (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 14 October 2023)

Friday, October 13, 2023

An intense, emotional, angry “pile”, “ziploc”, or “hammer” in a poem by Terrance Hayes

This morning in class, we discussed the effect of the repetition of the opening words in the first three sentences of one of Terrance Hayes's "American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin": "Who cannot distinguish a blackbird from a raven / [...]. Who cannot distinguish an entrance / From a gate.  Who cannot distinguish swagger from snake." The students mentioned its intensity and its emotionality, as well as how it characterizes the speaker as someone who is angry. Asked to name this effect, three of the students suggested "a pile", "a ziploc" (in a very personal association), or "a hammer". Only then did we discuss the rhetorical figure's name, "anaphora". (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 13 October 2023)

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Two car-chase movies I remember from long ago: “Gone in 60 Seconds” (1974) and “Duel” (1971)

I saw a list of 1970s car-chase movies and immediately thought of the original version of "Gone in 60 Seconds" (1974, directed by H. B. Halicki), which I must have seen on television late some summer night in the 1970s. All I remember is the car chase was endless, and the beat-up stolen car ultimately gets exchanged for a spotless version of the same model at a car wash. But the list also included the much-better 1971 television movie "Duel", which was Steven Spielberg's directorial debut. I don't remember when I saw it, but I often think of it and shiver when I'm passing semi-trucks on highways or, especially, country roads. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 12 October 2023)

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Perspectives on the musicians at the Haz’art Trio concert at the Bird’s Eye in Basel last night

I sat to the side of the stage at the Bird's Eye in Basel for the Haz'art Trio with Fadhel Boubaker on oud, Jonathan Sell on bass, and Dominik Fürstberger on drums. As I could only see Boubaker's back and the side of his oud, I couldn't get a close look at how the oud is played. But I had a lovely view over Boubaker's head of Sell's head, his left hand, and the top of his bass, and when he leaned his head back, the stage lights shone on the strings as if there were little drops of shining water on them, which would disappear when he leaned forward again. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 11 October 2023)

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The two Anouar Brahem concerts I have been to (both with Dave Holland)

While both the John McLaughlin concerts I've been to (in 1983 and 2023) left me mostly unmoved, I've been to two concerts by oud player Anouar Brahem with completely different outcomes. The first, at the Volkshaus in Basel in about 2001, was a spectacular concert with saxophonist John Surman and bassist Dave Holland. But when I saw Brahem in 2018 at the Musical Theater in Basel with the very promising lineup of Holland, pianist Django Bates, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, my son Miles and I had seats in the back, and the music seemed flat (partly because we thought it wasn't loud enough), while our friends sitting up front were captivated. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 10 October 2023)

Monday, October 09, 2023

I go to many concerts, so perhaps it’s no surprise that sometimes I’m disappointed

The three people with me at guitarist John McLaughlin's concert on Friday at the Volkshaus in Basel liked it, the band got standing ovations, and my friend Stefan Strittmatter wrote a positive review in the Basellandschaftliche Zeitung. But while I enjoyed pianist Jany McPherson and was impressed by the skills of McLaughlin, bassist Étienne Mbappé, drummer Ranjit Barot, and keyboardist-drummer Gary Husband, the music still left me cold. Since I don't like"there's no arguing about taste", I spent the weekend pondering this, but could only conclude that I've been spoiled this year: I've been to 56 concerts since January, and all but a few have satisfied my quest for musical transformation. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 9 October 2023)

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Well-chosen repertoire by the Pierre de Bethmann Trio and the Jacob Manz & Johanna Summer duo at recent concerts in Basel

At last night's concert at the Bird's Eye in Basel by pianist Pierre de Bethmann's trio with guitarist Nelson Veras and bassist Sylvain Romano, I was pleased to hear rarely played compositions by pianists John Taylor (1942-2015) and Andrew Hill (1931-2007) along with some more well-known repertoire. The group's choices of composers reminded me of a duo concert at the Tinguely Museum in Basel last month by two young German musicians, alto saxophonist Jacob Manz and pianist Johanna Summer, who mixed compositions by guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Esbjörn Svensson (1964-2007) in with their originals and actual standards, such as Frank Churchill and Larry Morey's "Someday My Prince Will Come". (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 8 October 2023)

Saturday, October 07, 2023

On realizing I’ve long been wrong about what my first jazz concert was

I've always said my first jazz concert was guitarists Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in January 1984 (with my second being Towner's band Oregon at the same venue two months later). But I did see guitarists Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola, and John McLaughlin in San Francisco in October 1983. And before that I'd seen the guitar-vocal duo Tuck & Patti several times at the New Varsity in Palo Alto. Perhaps I should say instead that the Towner and Abercrombie concert first taught me to listen to the interactivity of live jazz and made me fall in love with the genre. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 7 October 2023) 

Friday, October 06, 2023

Seeing John McLaughlin in 1983 and, forty years later, in 2023

The website has helped me fill in dates for many concerts I went to over the decadesm, but it doesn't have a date for the concert I saw in San Francisco in the early 1980s: the guitar trio of Paco de Lucia, Al Di Meola, and John McLaughlin, with guitarist Steve Morse opening with a solo set on 12-string guitar. Somewhere, though, I was able to narrow it down to October 1983 at the Masonic Auditorium. I'd like to think that trio concert was on 6 October, because then this evening's concert by McLaughlin at the Volkshaus in Basel would be on the 40th anniversary of my previous McLaughlin concert. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 6 October 2023)


Thursday, October 05, 2023

My take on Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” from the year of its release (2014)

            Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel begins with a frame story as elaborate as the movie's sets. In the present, a young woman walks through a graveyard to the gravestone of a famous writer. After adding a key to the many hotel keys already hanging on the gravestone, she begins to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. The scene cuts to 1985 with the author of the book reading it to the camera. The story he tells goes back to 1968, when he visited the Grand Budapest Hotel and heard Zero Moustafa tell the story of how he came to be the hotel's owner. That story, which takes place in 1932, focuses on the hotel's concierge, M. Gustave.

            At the end of the film, Zero sums up M. Gustave's life: "To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it—but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace!" M. Gustave's world is that of the luxury hotel; as the hotel's concierge, his job is to create an illusion of ease for his wealthy patrons. As he tells the new page boy (Zero himself), the staff must be both invisible and omnipresent: the patrons must never see the staff unless they want to see the staff, but the staff must always be ready to serve when the patrons want them. The illusion is "sustained" by the staff's performance, and the hotel itself serves as a "frame". Inside it, the "marvelous grace" of that performance; outside it, the world that can be forgotten while one is at the hotel.

            But the forgotten outside world can always intrude on that illusion. The wealth of the patrons comes from that outside world, as does the wealth of the hotel's initially unknown owner, who is later to be revealed to be one of those patrons, the ancient Madame Desgoffe and Taxis (nicknamed "Madame D" by M. Gustave). As is revealed when her will is read, her money comes from industry—and especially from the manufacture of armaments. The money that keeps the aesthetic illusion going, then, is based on the very violence that the hotel excludes from its frame.

            When M. Gustave and Zero are on their way to Madame D.'s funeral, a war has just started, and their train is stopped in the middle of a snow-covered barley field. The soldiers who board the train do not accept Zero's papers, for he is a stateless person. Their attempt to take him away leads to an uproar with M. Gustave; the noise brings the soldiers' commanding officer to find out what's going on. And here, the illusion is able to overcome the violence that it otherwise keeps at a distance, for this officer, Inspector Henckels, visited the Grand Budapest as a child, and he remembers M. Gustave fondly from his time there. In this train car, then, the aesthetic world of luxury is able to maintain its distance from the violence that makes it possible.

            M. Gustave gives a little speech that comments on the scene: "You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it." Thus, he both asserts and dismisses ("fuck it") the idea that the illusion of "civilization" can resist the "slaughterhouse" of human violence. The crude language even figures how the "barbaric" overwhelms the "civilized" despite the momentary "glimmer" offered by the reprieve made possible for M. Gustave and Zero by Henckels and his memories of the "graceful illusion" of the hotel. Indeed, when the scene is later doubled in another trade ride interrupted by soldiers, the paper Henckels gave Zero to allow him to be free to travel is torn to pieces by the soldiers, and M. Gustave is taken off. The storytelling Zero of 1968 only tells his interlocutor what happened when asked, blithely mentioning that M. Gustave was subsequently executed.

            If this second train scene represents the failure of the illusion of civilization to offset violence and barbarism, Zero nevertheless reasserts the power of that illusion by repeating M. Gustave's earlier speech—but this time without dismissing it: "There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity... He was one of them. What more is there to say?" Well, Zero, perhaps this: the aesthetic is itself often a matter of luxury. But unlike the luxury hotel, which must "frame" and ignore the violence that makes it possible, the aesthetic can and must take up its relationship to violence—not to neutralize that violence or even conquer it, but simply to be honest about it. And The Grand Budapest Hotel, itself an example of such "an illusion sustained with a marvelous grace", is entirely honest about the role of violence in the production and maintenance of such illusions.

July 2014

with thanks to Todd Swift for asking me to write this essay and for posting it on his blog back then

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

On lists of writers who did not win the Nobel Prize – and the case of Franz Kafka

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2023 will be announced tomorrow, and commentators will again write lists of all the great writers who never won the prize. While many of those writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) lived long lives and were famous before their deaths made them ineligible for the prize, and others, such as Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and James Joyce (1882-1941), died before the Swedish Academy got to them, one name should never appear on such lists: Franz Kafka (1883-1924). When Kafka died, his novels were unfinished, his published writings came to about 350 pages, and his work was known only to German-speaking insiders. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 4 October 2023) 

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden do “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and I think about the history of the song

When I listened to "Last Dance" the other day, one of Keith Jarrett's duo albums with Charlie Haden, I was captivated not only by "It Might As Well Be Spring", but also by Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye." The song was premiered in 1944 in a musical revue called "Seven Lively Arts" and was first a hit for Benny Goodman in 1945, with Peggy Mann on vocals. I probably first heard it on John Coltrane's 1961 album "My Favorite Things", right after the title cut, with Coltrane on soprano on both tunes. But I also love Annie Lennox's version on the 1990 Cole Porter compilation "Red Hot + Blue". (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 3 October 2023)

Monday, October 02, 2023

On being an immigrant to Germany and Switzerland

Unlike many immigrants to Germany and Switzerland since the 1990s, my skin has meant that I can pass as a local as I walk down the street. And in Germany, especially after I'd lived there for a year or two, I could often pass even when I spoke to people; after all, even before I moved to Berlin I was a fluent reader of the language, despite my relative lack of experience speaking. When I moved to Basel, then, I did not speak Basel German, so even brief conversations could out me as an outsider. But as a white speaker of English who also speaks German, I've rarely felt discriminated against. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 2 October 2023)

Sunday, October 01, 2023

On migrating from the United States to Germany to Switzerland

When I went to Berlin for a year in 1991, I did not think of it as migrating, because I did not plan to stay in Germany. After twenty months there, I moved to Saarbrücken, Germany, where I taught English at the Universiety for two-and-a-half years while finishing my dissertation. I still did not think of myself as a migrant, because I still did not plan to stay in Germany. On 1 October 1995, I moved to Basel, Switzerland, to teach English at the University for two years. Perhaps I could have begun to think of myself as a migrant by 1997, when my contract was extended for three more years. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 1 October 2023)