Coming up, momentarily: For the soundtrack of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Leonard Cohen sings, “He was just a Joseph looking for a manger.” Immediately, he “repeats”: “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.”
Before I fully discuss it, or even begin to, here are some prerequisite pk points:
We talk. We call what we talk language. Symbols, said, heard, written … some understood in common, some misunderstood in common, some seen, some unseen, no possible agreement on inventory, the territory mapable only imperfectly, incompletely.
An example I’ve been using for five decades is the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album.
There, an album cover is designed and illustrated with a complex amalgam of images. It mixes photogaphs (edited of course), drawings, text … Some of the photos look like drawings, some of the drawings look like photos. Any of us will recognize and be able to identify some of the component images: oh, there’s John, and Paul, George, and Ringo. It’s the Beatles. They’re in costume, turn of the century marching band … In fact they’re in there twice, in different costumes. And there’s WC Fields, Laurel & Hardy … Poe, Dylan, Brando …
But hold on: let me lay our a few more ingredients for our dish, putting the chopped onions here, the green peppers there, the chopped garlic right next to them … ready for the stir-fry.
Here’s a slightly different chop of my theory of information, my Macroinformation: meaning emerges when different kinds of information rub up against each other. Some words make what we identify, consciously or unconsciously, as “nouns,” some as “verbs” … Some symbols we recognize concretely — Mom, some abstractly — God … Sometimes they flow together in a familiar way; sometimes they jam against each other, throwing sparks: Jesus Christ, salad days …
How many potential bonfires are there in that Beatles’ image?
Here’s another chop: The Beatles is a complex entity. There’s the four “boys” just named, but there’s also their agent, this and that company, their lawyer, their accountant … There’s also how they got along last night, and the night before … how they’re getting along right now (or rather around when they were posing for that cover).
Now, making a new salad, I might say, “Throw in some Shakespeare.” You might say, “Add a reference to St. Francis.” You know who Shakespeare is; but have you read more than thirty of the plays? multiple times? (Have you ever performed a part in one? …) I know who St. Francis is, but do I know the same as you? Maybe you’re Catholic. I am not Catholic … but I know a lot more Church this and that than most Protestants (and most Catholics!)
Here’s not just another chop; this is like a different kitchen! Some symbols look simple:
That cross, the Effingham Cross, is a “bare” one: the empty cross: a Protestant cross. Here’s an image more crowded than the Beatles cover.
That’s an image, an assemblage of images, I hope you also know. Now here’s the one I’m building this background for:
Last evening I completed an item in a task I’ve been developing for the two and a half years I’ve loved and shared with Jan: we finished watching Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Like a Beatles album, like a Bosch painting, it’s a collaboration (and a series of sabotages) among artists, businessmen … the public … Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie … Vilmos Zsigmond, Leonard Cohen … me, you …
Jan hadn’t known Altman. I’ve been a huge Altman fan since his movie, Mash was released. I was ready and eager when McCabe was distributed. There’s a widescreen shot of NW forest: vast, dark, wet. There’s a slow pan right. A horse and rider becomes visible, a horse and rider with a trailed pack horse. Credit, starting with Warren Beatty, comes on screen right and drifts left. The sound track is Leonard Cohen singing, a guitar frail-strummed:
It's true that all the men you knew were dealers who said they were through with dealing Every time you gave them shelter ...
Rider and string arrive screen center just as the title comes up, screen center. The horses walk in time, almost (not robotic precision) — lyric, harmonic, with Cohen’s drone. (The lryics are not more precise than the coordination, but the correspondences are manifest.
I’ve been hearing this song now since 1971, I never heard the lyrics reliably until this morning, looking them up on line, and now I don’t believe the online transcription is quite accurate: as I’ll declare in a moment: but don’t trust my testimony any more than I trust yours, or the accuracy of the published lyric: on top of which, these days, hearing aids or no, I’m half deaf.)
damn unreliable connection and damn lousy Safari editor, I’ve lost some data. Grr.
Never mind, rent the movie, watch it, especially the first dozen minute, and every single bit of it too. Great great great great movie.
Music note: Music is counting, woven against melody (variation of pitch over time), mapped against a harmonic frame: context of notes among notes: that A suggests F, that A suggests C, the Bb suggests C in relation to F …) I’ll phrase that better another time.
Accuracy Note: I heard very few things in graduate school that were worth an hour’s tuition let along a decade, but here’s one: The professor reported a study of an epic culture in Europe, one with an oral tradition. The scholars asked for an epic. They recorded what they heard. Then they asked the poet to repeat it, exactly. The poet did, they recorded it. The poet swore it was exactly the same. They transcribed and printed both, comparing them. They were full of differences. In the culture those differences were not different.
Shakespeare’s Richard Burbage may have performed Hamlet’s “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt” one night and said “Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt” at the matinee. Ask another actor, ask an usher: get told that he said them “the same.”
Learn to take testimony with a grain of salt, learn to expect revisions of holy text to be unconscious. Christians change the gospels, but say they don’t, they wouldn’t.
Our great grandfathers didn’t expect Wednesday’s Pastoral Symphony to be identical to Friday’s: we, after buying recordins, demand that they not vary in any respect. Modern performers don’t dare sing live; it’s all karaoke for pay.
I’ll weave this together when I come back.