Tag Archives: george carlin

Complex, Muddled, Indirect Jargon

The above title is a response to one of my favorite phrases and concepts of George Carlin: “Simple, honest, direct language.” (Taken from 1990’s Doin’ It Again‘s closing segment on “soft language” and euphemisms, one of my favorite essays/monologues.)

As both a student and now a professor, I’ve long disliked dense, jargon-laced writing. Learning new concepts, both in graduate school and beyond, can be difficult enough, but it’s compounded when hidden behind opaque prose. Of course what I’m discussing here is simply writing itself, not the concepts and hypotheses it may (attempt to) describe. So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon this article by Barton Swaim on The Weekly Standard‘s website (yes, that’s right…ignore the overall source as I did) via The Dish. Key quotes:

• “Modern academics are not celebrated for the clarity and felicity of their writing… Typically, the only people who actually read academic books and articles are other academics, who only read them to know what they need to reference in their own books and articles. And that’s not reading; that’s trawling.”
• “…Many academic writers, even in the humanities, have legitimate and important insights to convey. Yet they genuinely believe…that it doesn’t serve their interests to write straightforward English sentences.”
• “Bad writing is institutionalized.” (Then paraphrasing the author whom he’s reviewing:) “…Academics learn how to write from three principal sources: their doctoral supervisors, their academic peers, and the academic journals in which they wish to be published.”

Such truth! (Yes, I’m aware that I occasionally ramble on and on here at MT-Headed, but thus is the nature of blogging. Like Stephen King, I tend to have “diarrhea of the word processor.”)

Given all this, I found it odd that the above article was published shortly after I began reading, the brand-spankin’-new Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition (2012) by Richard Taruskin and Christopher H. Gibbs, as SAU decided to make the switch from Peter J. Burkholder‘s A History of Western Music, 7th ed. (Burkholder had revised the infamous sixth edition by Donald J. Grout and Claude V. Palisca.) Consider this – Taruskin/Gibbs, Burkholder, and Grout/Palisca – the newly-complete trinity of music history texts for music majors. I mention this lineage because I have experience with all three:

• I learned from the Grout/Palisca sixth edition as an undergraduate student
• I taught from Burkholder’s seventh edition as a graduate assistant and beginning professor
• I now use Taruskin/Gibbs in my current music history course

Burkholder’s seventh edition was supposed to clear the air that was polluted by earlier editions’ dense writing. It’s user-friendly and doesn’t get too lost in the weeds. This is obviously good for music history students being introduced to the material for the first time. While the new Oxford History… may also attempt to be user-friendly and engaging, it ultimately comes off, to me, as being written as much (if not more) for Gibbs himself and other professors as (than) for new students. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing for me, it presents a problem when dealing with my students. Music history students are generally undergraduate music majors in their sophomore year, meaning that they have a basic musical foundation – music theory, aural skills, instrumental/vocal skills – on which to build a historical context and understanding. Consequently, a lot of the information is new to students. Instead of making the terms and concepts easy to digest, Gibbs at times obscures the main points by telling his “story.” It’s as if he’s going for the musicological non-fiction novel, but it’s important to remember that facts are more important than plot points.

Like the Burkholder – a major revision of an existing work – Gibbs’s book is a major revision, condensing Richard Taruskin’s multi-volume Oxford History of Western Music into a single 1248-page text. There’s of course nothing wrong with wanting to take great content and distill it for new students. Yet Gibbs intended more, as he ultimately had “the desire to tell a story,” writing in the introduction (p. xxvii). That’s fine and dandy, but what eventually occurs are prosaic flights of fancy instead of straightforward, lucid presentations of the material. Consequently, I spend a decent amount of my in-class time re-explaining the text to my students, or simply pointing out which paragraphs and/or passages to ignore outright. Gibbs occasionally goes on an editorial jag or makes his explanations via the scenic route. A couple noteworthy examples (buckle in, fellow music students), specifically about Medieval music (my bold):

• Regarding Notre Dame organum (p.71):
“The music of Notre Dame exemplified St. Augustine’s metaphor of ‘a mind poured forth in joy,’ but it also accorded with the size of the reverberant spaces it had to fill and with a message of institutional triumph at a time notable for its triumphant institutionalism.”

• Regarding Guillaume de Machaut’s motets (p. 101):
“In such an extremely formalized motet, architectural analogies are virtually inescapable, for the elaborate structure were probably planned in advance. The fourteenth-century isorhythmic motet, perhaps the most hierarchically conceived and rigorously ordered genre in the history of European music, was more concerned than any other to incorporate a representation of the higher ‘intellectual’ elements and their controlling influence, which, being hidden from the senses, were in the most literal and etymological way occult. That is another way of interpreting the enormous value and emphasis that was placed on the structure architecture of the motet.”

• Regarding form, formal training, elitism, and patronage (p. 121):
Composers trained in the techniques of monumental musical architecture and who could produce works of grandiose design could put on particularly impressive legitimizing political shows for their patrons, and they found a rich market for their skills.”

Each of these passages could easily be nominated for The Dish‘s The Poseur Alert award given “for passages of prose that stand out for pretension, vanity and really bad writing designed to look like profundity.” For a side-by-side taste test, compare Burkholder’s and Gibbs’s explanation of the Squarcialupi Codex (if you don’t know what that is, even better):

Burkholder (his italics):
“Very few examples of Italian secular polyphony from before 1330 have survived, but after that date there are several manuscripts. The most copious source, unforutnately late and not altogether reliable, is the richly decorated Squarcialupi Codex, named for its former owner, the Florentine organist Antonio Squarcialupi (1416-1480). This collection, probably copied about 1410-15, contains 354 pieces, mostly for two or three voices, by twelve composers of the Trecento and early Quattrocento (1400s). A miniature portrait of each composer appears at the beginning of the section containing his works… Three types of secular Italian pieces appear in this and other manuscripts: madrigal, caccia, and ballata.” (p. 136)

Gibbs (my bold):
“The sources of trecento polyphony often look like the big presentation chansonniers that retrospectively preserved the music of the troubadours. This is particularly true of the so-called Squarcialupi Codex (named after an organist who was one of its early owners), a magnificent compendium put together around 1415 as a memorial to the art of the trecento when that art had already faded. Its expensive materials and lavish illuminations make this codex literally priceless. It is priceless in another sense as well: It preserves dozens of compositions that would otherwise have been entirely lost. The contents of the Squarcialupi Codex are organized by author, each section introduced by a portrait of the composer. Nowhere do we get a more vivid sense of how consciously the poet-musicians of the trecento thought of themselves as the inheritors and reanimators of the lost art of Aquitaine.” (p. 115)

Whew. There’s a lot of information in each paragraph. Burkholder provides the information without too much colorful editorializing. Gibbs, on the other hand, is telling his story – you get the information along with his flowery discussion. As for the final, bolded sentence, I just don’t see the need for it. At least, I don’t know what it had to be written in that manner. Burkholder is more data-driven, whereas Gibbs strives for narrative. Pedagogically, I prefer the former, at least when using a textbook.

I should make it clear that I don’t think Gibbs’s book is bad. There are some wonderful aspects:
• The actual content is great: he not only discusses the relevant musical works, terminology, and figures, but he also provides a lot of cultural and historical context. For example, his discussion of the near-fallacy of “periodization” (pp. 124-7), particularly regarding Medieval and Renaissance music, is very insightful, and great advice for the student.
• Along with the textbook, there is a really nice anthology of scores (edited by separate authors) and recordings – better than the Burkholder/Palisca, in my opinion.
• As a reader, I enjoy the additional historical and cultural context he’s provided.

However, regarding the final point, I have to keep in mind that I’m not reading about the music for the first time. Gibbs’s intermittent editorializing and penchant for using “seven words when four will do” can obfuscate the core material for newbies. Students often have to dig farther than necessary for the actual content. And the digging often isn’t a result of theoretical, abstract concepts, but rather the author’s prose. I’m hoping a second edition will address this.

Of course, this is an issue that extends far beyond The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition. It may seem like my overall complaint lies with Gibbs, but he’s simply a convenient case study. This is an issue about which I’ve long been concerned, and it just so happened that Swaim’s article coincided with my beginning to teach with this new textbook. While I don’t think that music majors should be taught out of a Dummies book, I would like to see user experience become a more widespread concern.

Social Media: Stifle Yourself II

I briefly discussed my frustration with social media here about eighteen months ago. I can’t remember what specifically moved me to write that, but I clearly recall being annoyed while I typed. (The heat didn’t help; I was living in Houston at the time.) Regardless of what was happening then, one things remains true: the social media (over)saturation has only increased, and I don’t think it’s all been for the better.

Sure, I tweet. And have a Facebook page (now a “lovely” Timeline). And have satisfied the LinkedIn and Google+ requirements. And tumbleweed occasionally brushes past my space. (Yawn.) But for those of you who may be connected to me through those various avenues, you know that I’m not the most voracious user. The networks mentioned above are listed in order of activity. I’ll tweet a few times each week, but 99% of those are related to either blog updates or gigs and recordings. Occasionally I’ll tweet something separate, as I did on Sunday about the Charles Lloyd concert. Same goes for Facebook. The rest are pretty much parked to secure the name and satisfy my minimum requirements of existing and have a “friend”/connection. I’ll accept incoming requests, but rarely am I logged in or doing anything. I think I can safely say that my online presence is an abject failure, considering I never created a Tumblr and only recently joined SoundCloud (again, mainly to park).

In full disclosure, I am pretty active with Twitter and Facebook (aside from personal/private accounts), and do see their value. They’re interactive – allowing me to be more interactive via my site and blog – and are helpful tools for getting short bursts of information out to people. With social media in general, I try to stick to the core: information and interaction.

Since first securing michaelteager.com a number of years ago I intended for my website to serve as the hub. I still do. The main site and MT-Headed are where you can find all you need to know about Michael Teager the musician, teacher, and blogger/writer. All else is just a satellite, nothing more than a TIE Fighter to this Death Star. You won’t find much of anything different on the other sites, and that’s not unintentional.

A few months ago I was listening to Paul F. Tompkins discuss his social media presence on The Long Shot, and my jaw hit the ground when he said he’d like to trade in his main website for separate, equally active presences on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It just doesn’t compute for me. Similarly, Spin magazine recently went über-hipster by focusing on album review tweets. Lame. Have our attention spans really become that short? Is general readership just that lazy? Or are so many figures and organizations so desperate to be on the “cutting edge” of social media that they’re willing to sacrifice part of their core platform in the process? (I fear it’s a combination of all three, with the latter taking the largest bulk of blame.) If someone’s interested, my hunch is that he or she will click the mouse or tap the screen. Perhaps more than once! If twice is too much, then perhaps a “fan” wasn’t really lost…

Perhaps my biggest complaint about social media in general is that with everyone gunning to get everyone’s attention at all times, there’s too much irrelevant information churned out each and every hour. After all, I’m subscribed to a whole host of outlets for updates on items of interest. However, to retrieve that information, I have to suffer through so much garbage that it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. It’s too Who cares?!? as opposed to Hey, that’s neat! I’m sure I spend at least 90% of my time deciding what not to read rather than what to click through to. (There’s a similar correlation to my nightly comb through my RSS subscriptions, but that’s more heavily curated.)

As mentioned, I do enjoy the interaction. However, not every tweet or update warrants a response from everyone else. Not everything requires a snarky comment (and this is coming from a snarky cynic). And not everyone needs to provide a Hallmark-esque comment for every holiday, award, or death of anyone above a D-list celebrity. Too much piffle leads me to likely ignore the more substantial updates and tweets. (Yes, I publicly grieved – digitally – for LeRoi Moore, George Carlin, and Peter Steele, but they are figures who’ve meant a lot to me over many years, especially the first two.)

If only Archie had lived long enough to tweet…


George Carlin’s birthday was a little over one week ago. He would have been 74. Now, I strive to keep this a music-oriented blog despite my other deep interests (politics/current events and stand-up comedy). However, Carlin is worth mentioning here because he’s artistically relevant to one of this blog’s recurring topics: aesthetic authenticity.

Without getting too deep into it, I consider him to be one of the greatest minds and voices of the twentieth century. Seriously. (I have all of the HBO specials and most of the albums to prove it. 🙂 ) Yes, he was “a comic.” But he was also so much more. Though there were strains of it when we started out in the 50s, eventually his material was more akin to philosophical, linguistic, satirical, and political essays peppered with jokes, as opposed to a series of one-liners mixed in with anecdotes. It didn’t matter whether or not you agreed with his point of view; the goal was to open the listener’s mind to new ways of analyzing topics or issues. This is something he was very consciously aware of, as evidenced in this interview, during which he says he eventually considered himself an essayist who performed.

Last year I read Last Words (his autobiography, published posthumously), and was struck by just how obsessed he was throughout his career with identifying and honing what he called “my authentic voice.” This of course is arguably the primary dilemma for an artist – truly expressing oneself. Whether you’re a fan or not, this book serves as a masterclass of sorts in authenticity. In case you’re unfamiliar, Carlin started out as a very straight-laced, mainstream, and commercially successful act in the 1950s.The 70s, however, saw Carlin reintroduce himself as the real George: hippie, counter-culture provocateur, and social critic. Two excerpts from the cleverly-titled chapter “The Long Epiphany” wonderfully distill this process:

1. “But mainly I had to explain myself to me. What had been pulling at me all this time, dragging me away from the old approach and toward the new, was the lack of my voice in my work. The absence of me in my act. I would say, ‘I wasn’t in my act. I was all these other people.’ And I would introduce them all, the old familiar characters, one by one, to make the point.” (p. 146)

2. “I would no longer deal with subjects that were expected of me, in ways which had been determined by others. I would determine the ways. My own experiences would be the subject. I went into myself, I discovered my own voice and I found it authentic. So, apparently, did the audiences in the coffeehouses I was now playing. And while I was back to making no money, when they laughed now it felt great. I was getting votes of confidence for the path I had taken. They were reaffirming something that I felt and now was able to think through as well as feel. It meant I was right. Which strengthened my resolve to carry this through.” (p. 152)

[Note: Imagine my surprise, and joy, in reading Dave Liebman’s endorsement of this book for similar reasons in his May newsletter a few weeks ago.]

These words ring as true for me now as they did upon first read. It’s great – necessary – to have influences, and it’s equally important to emulate them. However, eventually one must move beyond his/her influences and training to develop the inner voice that’s dying to get out. I implied this in an earlier post, and hope to delve deeper into the topic at some point. For now, though, I simply want to highlight George…

I was fortunate to see Carlin perform live three times. It was very interesting for me, both as a fan and as a performer, because all three performances were in preparation for what became his final HBO special, It’s Bad For Ya (2008). For context, the actual special was recorded March 1, 2008. The performances I saw were as follows: January 2007 (Ann Arbor, MI), July 2007 (Las Vegas, NV), March 2008 (East Lansing, MI). I note this because I was able to see the material develop from scattered notes to a scripted, seamless 60+ minute performance. It was a tremendous peek into Carlin’s creative process. Some highlights:
January 2007: He informally took the stage with a stack of loose notes and papers and prefaced this show with (I’m paraphrasing): “You’ll have to excuse me, as this won’t be like the shows you’re used to seeing on HBO and hearing on record. I have a whole new hour of material, in no particular order, and I don’t know just how any of them work just yet. This is more of a test drive, but I promise you’ll laugh.” AND I DID! That night was one of the hardest I’ve ever laughed. But he was true to his word – it was more akin to alternative comedy than Carlin’s traditional style of rapid-fire storytelling and joke-telling. He would take a paper from his stack, remind himself of the joke/outline, extemporize, then move on to the next note.
July 2007: No notes; a cold open with no disclaimer. Six months later, the material was now in its third or fourth draft. You could tell that there was a set order and that he was working out the rhythm. Also, a number of topics were dropped, while a few new ones had been incorporated. Just as funny. 🙂
March 2008: By this time, the HBO special had been taped/aired (live). Carlin’s trademark style had returned, and the show was by then a well-oiled machine. The material’s order had once again been changed, but the overall content remained unchanged. Final draft, no further revision. Vintage GC.

So, a few nuggets of GC info and memories. To close, I’d like to highlight arguably my favorite Carlin essay (as I’m sure he considered it). It addresses his favorite topic: language. Specifically, it’s an all-out assault on one of his worst enemies: euphemisms. Part of his obsession with language was that because we think in language, then the better and clearer we use language the better we can convey our thoughts. I’ve gone through it probably 100 times (the live performance from 1990’s Doin’ It Again is priceless) and find it just as funny and thought-provoking as the first.

George Carlin: Euphemistic Language

*Update*: Here’s the live version form Doin’ It Again (slightly NSFW):