From the archives: December 2007

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Out with a Bangkok

Friday, 21 December 2007 — 6:59am | Adventures

This is my final transmission of the calendar year, as I will be spending the rest of it in Thailand for the World Universities Debating Championship at Assumption University. I visited the country four years ago under related circumstances and got a hearty taste of the Bangkok-and-area tourist experience in all its kickboxing, tuk-tuk-riding, Buddha-sighting, Patpong-prowling, elephant-riding, snake-farming, Chris-Samuel-losing, international-heritage-preservation-treaty-violating glory, but this year’s excursion promises a broader sweep of the country.

Now, if you have been paying attention to world news over the past fifteen-odd months, you probably know that Thailand is currently ruled by a military junta that seized power in a bloodless coup endorsed by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself, whose patriotic musical compositions the army played on the airwaves as they shut down lines of communication. (The King, you see, is a revered clarinetist, saxophonist and big band composer who once shared a stage with Benny Goodman.) It just so turns out that the military, having drafted a fresh constitution, is relinquishing power on 23 December, the scheduled date of a general election. And I’m going to be there.

I’ve never been in a country in the midst of a transition out of martial law before, and I have to sheepishly admit that I’ll be disappointed if nothing noteworthy happens, and tourists can just go on with their exploits without noticing a thing. In theory, it should have some of the uncertainty and excitement of being in a foreign country as it moves into a state of martial law, but none of the risks and logistical hassles. Naturally, we should keep in mind that the legitimacy of the election is already suspect, but the people of Thailand are no strangers to seeing their votes invalidated.

I’ll naturally be carrying pen and paper at all times, so if there is anything interesting to report beyond the bird’s-eye-view of the media, it will eventually make its way here. Happy Christmas, and may your holidays be adventurous.

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Rabbi Quixote

Tuesday, 18 December 2007 — 5:17am | Literature, Michael Chabon

The hardcover edition of Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon’s serial novel for The New York Times (working title: Jews With Swords), closes with a provocative afterword in which Chabon reflects on his turn from the paradigm of “late-century naturalism”—contemporary stories about “divorce; death; illness; violence, random and domestic; divorce; bad faith; deception and self-deception; love and hate between fathers and sons, men and women, friends and lovers; the transience of beauty and desire; divorce”—to a tale about, well, Jews… with swords.

To longtime Chabon readers such as myself, his position on genre literature is well known, and in large part responsible for his appeal; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is as seminal a defence of escapism as one is likely to find anywhere. I have long been suspicious of the privilege the literary establishment confers on “serious” literature; in the dominant paradigm, there’s a critical undercurrent that believes literature can’t serve its socially transgressive purpose (a broad assertion of a mission statement in its own right) if you are having fun, or if you dare to edge closer to the mythic than the workaday. Oh, sure, they don’t mind the odd sparkle of magic realism, but if swashes and buckles are involved? That’s second-class.

Continued »

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The hack-and-slash fiction property market

Monday, 17 December 2007 — 8:17pm | Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

Sarah Eve Kelly has written a fascinating post on fan fiction’s place in the literary economy—one that, for all its brevity, deserves some measure of attention. Sarah’s piece is a pointed refutation of an article entitled “Valuing the Work in Fanwork”, which makes the bold claim that fan fiction is a subversive means of anti-capitalist resistance—an assertion that is counterintuitive at face value, but worth dismantling anyway.

The substance of the original article’s argument is that the mainstream tends to dismiss fan fiction as an illegitimate activity, or a pointless waste of time, because it is locked into a capitalist mentality that cannot fathom why anyone would invest time in writing freely disseminated fiction they can’t sell. This is silly for a number of reasons, and it reeks of an ex post facto apologia for an activity whose supporters already found worthwhile from the start, but I’ll defer to Sarah’s observations before I lob my own handful of napalm on the pig-pile.

Continued »

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Further adventures of an accompanying picaro

Monday, 17 December 2007 — 5:25pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Music can take you to some interesting places and unexpected situations, and its predilection for adventure is as evident as ever in the Christmas season. As my readers know, every now and then I hit black things and white things and make a lot of noise that might just resolve into the coherent pattern of a convenient overtone series (if I’m lucky). On the odd occasion I even get to do it while somebody else is singing.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to do just that with a local fantasy author of my acquaintance. It was not an especially public gig—only a Christmas-themed recital by the students of a vocal teacher—but one of the experiential benefits of being an instrumentalist in an auxiliary role, rather than the centre of attention, is the opportunity to communicate musically with people who are not there to see you.

The voice teacher in question already had a dedicated and polished accompanist, but the vocalist hired me on anyway for my apparent versatility—that I can read music straight up, but also improvise blues licks over a gospel groove if need be. From my perspective, this was a fairly routine procedure and nothing out of the ordinary—which is why I was so surprised at how well received my playing was, especially because it was honestly a tad sloppy (tripped up, no doubt, by the fact that I had to turn pages, something I never learned to do properly).

The compliments were beyond the layman’s usual polite appreciation, to boot: at least one of the students’ parents approached me after the concert, passed me a business card, and asked me in earnest to send her a CD. I had to tell her that regrettably, I don’t have one ready at the moment. In truth, for some time now I’ve been mentally drafting some ideas for a well-produced solo studio recording on a proper pianoforte, ideas I won’t reveal until the time is ripe. If I start telling people that I’m sketching an impressionistic suite of spontaneous meditations on the poetry of J.R.R. Tolkien, they might develop unreasonable expectations.


Nevertheless, the reaction at the concert drew my attention to the prevailing gap of perception regarding improvised music that persists even among trained musicians. There is a notion, among many developing instrumentalists, that you need the guidance of sheet music in order to play; indeed, that is often the first thing they ask for when they watch something on the order of an impressive YouTube video. How does one imitate that, they want to know? The first step, I think, is to realize that regardless of whether or not one is reading off the page, playing music is not a mechanical process, but a matter of the imagination.

When it comes to musical accreditations, we don’t just impose requirements of scale technique and basic harmonic theory to make you sweat: we do it to encourage thinking on higher levels of abstraction. You can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube if you only proceed twist by twist; you need to think of corner swaps and edge rotations. And the only real trick to improvised music is to stop thinking note by note. It’s the trivium at work: from grammar to logic to rhetoric.

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Finding Bingo

Sunday, 9 December 2007 — 2:00am | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Every year, the Calgary Scrabble Group conducts a grand social experiment: a 12-round marathon tournament played end to end in the span of a day. (For comparison, the standard limitation for the number of games you can stuff in a day is 8, a ceiling that the most arduous of competitions dare not breach.) You need to be slightly crazy about the game to even consider playing in such a monstrosity—so naturally, I attended.

And it was fortunate that I did, as it turned out to be my most successful tournament in recent memory: I finished first in my division with a record of 8-4 (+377), worth a $200 cash prize; I posted the division’s highest winning score (492, $10), highest losing score (427, $10), greatest deficit overcome en route to a win (I was down by 99 points and two bingos in one game before I conducted a fortuitous rollback; $10) and highest total bingo count after 12 rounds (20 bingos, $10).

My bingo list (as always, lowercase denotes blanks and * denotes phonies): ObEYING, SeETHING, BITTIES*, ELATIONS, FAINTING, REMEDIED, sEDATED, TOADIES, OWNABLe, SKATERS, FIXAtES, CLOSURE, CHAMBERS, WEARIES, RELaTIoN, IMPENDS, CABiNETS, CARRIES, DUCTILE, LAtTICED. Nothing really strange—just the usual smattering of common prefixes and suffixes.

As it happens, I forgot to pack my camera, so there’s no photographic evidence. Ergo, here’s to a holistic postmortem.

Continued »

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