Memories of Lenore

Lenore Lattimer as a young dancer

My favorite professor at Bard has died.  This post is pretty late; she died in September.  But I didn’t hear about it until today.  My friend Dages will be performing one of her dances at her memorial soon; I’ll update this when I know the date etc.

I am not the world’s greatest dancer.  I was a shy nerd as a kid, and, as my friend Tyler would marvel back when we were in elementary school, “John doesn’t like music!”  Not strictly true; I loved the oldies station my mom always listened to in the car, and my parents often played tapes at home, Bob Marley or Bow Wow Wow, or (most often) gamelan, some of which my father had recorded himself while on research trips to Bali.  My sister liked show tunes and a few cassettes of Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany, and I listened to that just like I read her Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew Files books.  But it’s true I wasn’t very well-versed in pop music until I was a teenager, when I caught up on the 80s through VH-1 and got into “alternative” radio while learning to drive.  It’s not like I was completely ignorant of it, but it felt somehow out of my league, like I wasn’t cool enough to even try to understand it all.  At some point when I was very young someone laughed at me for not realizing “Beat It” by Michael Jackson was not the same song as “Eat It” by Weird Al; the possibility of making a mistake like that, humiliating when you’re a little kid (if not always), made it a bit too fraught for a shy and very cautious kid like I was.  Certainly, by the time I got to enjoy school dances, I was way behind on learning how to dance.  My best tactic was to simply fake it through abandon and enthusiasm, which I could rarely muster up the courage for, unless my friend Tim was there to set the example.

Strangely, despite growing up in a theatrical house, I don’t remember any contact with Western art dance–ballet, modern dance, any kind of choreographed performance with an audience–until I got to college.  I’d seen Balinese and Javanese dance, but that was about it.  I went to my first Bard dance performance partly out of curiosity, partly because it was the thing to do, but I think mostly because my friend Evan was going.  I was thunderstruck.  The show was very crowded, very hot, and very long–over a dozen dances, I think, of all sorts of moods, styles, qualities.  Most were choreographed by students, some by professors.  I used to say to my dad, I wanted “theater without actors”, and here it was, and even better than I’d ever imagined.  I saw a lot of great dance at Bard, some showy and Broadway,  some spooky or disturbing, some gorgeous or sexy, some bizarre and avant-garde (one was in almost complete darkness, with no sound but that of the feet of the dancers sliding across the floor; in another, a dancer in a figure skating costume stood motionlessly balanced on one leg to the soundtrack of the recorded voice of a figure skating commentator.)

By this time I had already committed to a fine art major, and dance seemed, like music before it, somewhere out of my reach; but my friends encouraged me to take some dance classes.  There were many professors teaching intro classes.  “Who should I take?” I asked.  “Lenore,” everyone said.

Lenore turned out to be a cranky and commanding old lady, in her 60s when I met her, rain thin and as flexible as a rubber toy.  When she led the stretches at the beginning of the class it seemed impossible that she had any bones at all.  She taught a very flowy, swooping kind of dance–I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the terminology or the various schools to talk intelligently about this–but was strict and demanding.  She knew when you were struggling and when you were just not trying your best.  “John!” she would shout with her raspy voice.  “Get those arms up!”  It was impossible not to fall in love with her from the first class.

I was usually very grumpy about the studio art department, as disgruntled as some of my theater friends were with the theater department.  We would sometimes sit around daydreaming out loud about being dance majors, how if only we’d known then what we knew now, we would have done dance all the way.  I don’t know what they think about that now.  But I still think about it sometimes, and I still wish I had had any idea that I might want to try dance when I was a freshman picking classes for the first time.  I still dream of it, being a full-fledged member of the world of dance.  I still hope to be someday.  It’s too late to become a dancer, or probably even choreographer; but I still aspire to become Leon Bakst at least.  Soon, I hope, I’ll be living in Chicago; hopefully I’ll be able to meet dance people there.

At Bard there were very rarely more than two other male students in a dance class.  My friend Caitlin told me that, before we met, she knew me as “the boy in dance class who’s really into it”, and as mortifying as I find that (for some reason), it’s true, I was really into it.  We would line up and do a series of steps across the room.  I was always first in line.  (This is not entirely due to my enthusiasm: I figured out that before you went out there, you were too busy trying to get the sequence straight in your head to watch the other dancers, so paradoxically, going first meant you were most invisible.)  I was ecstatic to be asked, by another of my professors, to perform in the dance she was choreographing.  But I was even more proud when Lenore told me she thought I was ready to try her intermediate dance class.  It was quite a jump up–I struggled very much in that class, basically always felt lost or inadequate to what I was being asked to do, and it was at some ungodly early hour of the morning, my final semester at Bard.  But I loved it.  And I loved Lenore.

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Comrades from Unlikely Places

From Kat Asharya (late of the lamented NOGOODFORME), some years ago, I learned of 8tracks, a site where you can make streaming ‘mix tapes’ of mp3s to share with the world.  Making mixes was always a pleasure for me (child of the 80s/90s that I am) so I really got into it for awhile.  It was meant, I believe, as a human-curated alternative to algorithm-driven sites like Pandora.  There are a couple of rules: you can’t have more than 2 songs from the same artist or album, and once you’ve heard a mix once it must be reshuffled (thus, I’m afraid, rather ruining most of the art of the mix); these are, I guess, mandated rules for Internet radio, in order to prevent people just using the service for piracy.  (We have YouTube for that!)  Eventually, I tapered off 8tracks, mostly because I felt like all the mixes I was making were too similar.

The other day I decided to make a new one, since it had been so long.  I did it, and I liked it; but when I looked at my other mixes, I discovered that a lot of the so-called “metadata” had been changed: names of artist, album, year, etc.  In one case this meant that 3 songs were credited to the same artist, so the mix had been taken down.  I was annoyed enough to write to customer support, not expecting any real reply, given my experience in these matters.  (Tumblr, for example, though I love it, has really godawful customer service.)  I reprint below my unexpectedly enjoyable correspondence with them.

Conversation started by individualfrog

Hey guys, I didn’t use 8tracks for a long time, and now coming back I see that apparently robots have taken over to some degree: I mean that something checks over each song and rewrites the track information to match what song it thinks it’s found. I understand it, you need to prevent people from posting full albums etc., but the problem is that your robots have put a lot of wrong information into my mixes–the wrong artists, the wrong album names, etc. In one case, I had to delete a song, because your robots decided that three songs were by the same guy (he was in two of the bands and the composer of the third song, but it was actually three separate artists). Changing the names back didn’t help, naturally. Considering that your site was invented (if I remember correctly) specifically to put humans in charge rather than the algorithms that drive Pandora, it’s all rather disappointing.

Jason Waters replied

Hello,

Thanks for writing in, and sorry for the trouble. We do run an ID check on the tracks so that incorrect metadata will be changed (for precisely the reasons you mentioned) but it’s a relatively new feature and it’s not 100% accurate yet. I’m sorry that your track metadata has been changed, if you send me a link to the mixes in question with the corrections you’d like to make I would be happy to take a look at them and see what I can do.

Thanks,

Jason


Jason Waters
support@8tracks.com

individualfrog replied

Hi Jason;

I really appreciate your response. There are a lot of little things that don’t ultimately matter, like the wrong pianist credited on some classical tracks–probably the performances are just so similar. Anyway, those are no big deal. But on my mix “No Wave”, which I wanted to be a nice overview of the genre, I had a song by Theoretical Girls, a song by The Static, and a piece by Glenn Branca, who was in both of the aforementioned bands. But really they are three different artists. The ID check thing changed them all to say the artist was Glenn Branca, which made the mix invalid. If you could restore the song called, ahem, “Fuck Yourself”, which is really by Theoretical Girls, I would appreciate it and I think the mix would be more historically valuable to people who want to learn about No Wave. (There are probably more comprehensive mixes out there now, but I like mine.) Here’s a link to the mix:
http://8tracks.com/individualfrog/no-wave

Again thanks, and if it’s impossible to do anything I won’t hold it against you. Yours,

John

Jason Waters replied

Hey John,

Unfortunately it seems that there isn’t really anything we can do about it. The ID3 performer tag seems to have picked up Glenn Branca as the artist for all three songs, I’m assuming since he was involved in all of the tracks as a composer. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. It’s a shame, there’s a bit of a shortage of good no wave mixes on the site, and Theoretical Girls are kind of essential. I suppose the system just doesn’t want people’s minds to get blown quite so hard. My only suggestion would be to try to find a work-around, maybe using another song, something like that, to see if it has any effect. Sorry I can’t be of more help on this, but let me know if there’s anything else you have questions about.

Thanks,

Jason

individualfrog replied

Hi Jason;

Thanks anyway and no hard feelings. Let us look forward to a future when the robots allow us our No Wave; until then it must remain slightly illicit and underground as it was always, after all, meant to be.

John

Mar 27 5:27pm

Jason Waters replied

Indeed. If ever there was music with which we could truly fight the machines it would be this. Wield Michael Gira and Thurston Moore and Glenn Branca like a three-headed club of justice and the world will know peace. Or absolute terror. Not sure. But stay strong, keep fighting the good fight. I salute you.

Respectfully,

Jason Waters
Friend to the Cause

Now maybe it’s an indictment of this day and age if simply communicating with a responsive human being in a customer context is a pleasure. But this was a fun exchange, and I appreciated it, and I think it’s not naive or foolish to give a shout-out to Jason here, even if he couldn’t really help me out, and 8tracks for having real people manning their support desk.

Here are my favorites of the mixes I’ve made: Le Petit TrianonSound of Tsuyu歌舞伎町の覚えDigital Melodrama.

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Sobe Yourself

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular MusicFaking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a teenager in the post-Nirvana 90s, I was an eye-witness to the strangling authenticity-above-all ethos of “alternative” music. “We dress this way because it’s how we feel,” said whatever amazing-looking, grunge-chic band member or skater kid on TV, “don’t be what other people want you to be, be yourself!” This was the “positive” message constantly rammed down our throats in those days: be yourself, unless “yourself” liked to wear the wrong thing, listen to the wrong music, or, especially, if “yourself” didn’t agree with the “be yourself” message. “Poseur” was a favorite insult during my high-school days–God forbid a teenager might want to try something new. I sometimes feel like I’ve spent my life trying to get out of the impossible labyrinth of this ethos. This book, about the “quest for authenticity” in its most natural habitat, the music scene, opens with the death of Kurt Cobain, a tireless promoter of the very catchphrases that were tearing him up inside.

The subject matter is interesting/infuriating, but the authors’ use of it is confusing and strangely banal. They come up to the point of demolishing the entire idea of “authenticity” altogether, but can’t seem to bring themselves to seal the deal, because they still want to say that Neil Young’s 70s albums are more “real” than Trans. They show how music has always been syncretic, and black and white musicians (before the segregation imposed by record companies) played the same repertoire, but they still imply that Moby and Paul Simon are cultural imperialists. They trace the genesis and eventual ubiquity of the autobiographical song–mostly unknown before the 20th Century–but put this research to use only to mock Tori Amos and other “confessional” songwriters that they dislike. They lay out a case (without quite coming out and saying it) that “world music” notions of authenticity are essentially racist, but still call commercial American releases like Buena Vista Social Club “watered down”. They love to point out that what white, rock-ish audiences consider authentic-sounding are in fact unpopular with the communities that birthed them–a strange “gotcha” that simply substitutes one arbitrary authenticity criterion for another. It’s strange to read these two authors building up all this evidence to undermine the entire edifice of music criticism today–as they point out, authenticity is still something by which music of any kind is judged–but refuse to follow through with it, so they can still criticize the artists they dislike (Europop, Yes, Fatboy Slim) with it.

In any book on popular music, I end up feeling that some band I care about has been neglected–I really feel like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion belongs in here, for example. I suppose I can accept their begging off the topic of hip-hop as being too complicated to fit into this book–it probably does deserve its own volume. But I really do think that the chapter which contrasts the “real” Neil Young to the “fake” Billy Joel would have been much more interesting if they had substituted David Bowie for the latter. The fact that Joel is relatively critically un-acclaimed stacks the deck; Bowie, both beloved and widely considered “fake”, complicates their whole thesis. Surely in a book about authenticity in rock’n’roll, Bowie deserves a place, if only to break down why on earth we call him, but not Joey Ramone, inauthentic.

In the most intriguing moments of the book, by breaking down the concept of authenticity, the authors end up chipping away at the very concept of the continuous self. The imperative to “keep it real” and “be yourself” has always been impossible. How can one be authentic if one is continually changing, moment to moment? All of us, not just the miserably pigeonholed stars they highlight (Cobain, Donna Summer, John Lydon, etc.) are to some degree trapped within our own identities. The insistence on authenticity is essentially an insistence on an illusory stability in a world of flux. To their credit, the authors recognize this. They quote Kafka: “I have nothing in common with myself.” With the early discussion of acoustic blues beloved of white record collectors, I was reminded of Steve Buscemi’s 78-collecting character’s lament in Ghost World: “I hate my interests!” I would have liked this book to go further along this path, but perhaps it ends up too deep into philosophy, and strays too far from the pop-music topic that they started from. But maybe someday we’ll find a way to let ourselves, and each other, change our minds, adopt new mindsets, try different styles, as unhesitatingly and smoothly as we change our moods.

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Book Bros.

Let’s see if this works.  My brother asked me if I wanted to do a book vlog with him, and I said sure.  Here we are talking about The Great Gatsby, mostly in reaction to the trailer for the upcoming movie.  Like anyone, I’m completely mortified watching myself, but I trust that you all will be more kind.  Presumably there will be more coming in the future, and perhaps I will get better at it?

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Month of Letters: Wrapping Up

The month is over, and I accomplished my task: one letter every day.  It was sometimes a struggle; I would realize it was 1 AM and I didn’t have anything, so I’d grumpily sit down and bang out an ugly postcard or something.  But often it was a pleasure to write, and to fashion an envelope–I think, though I can’t remember exactly, that I never used an actual pre-made envelope, only ones I made myself.  The two most beautiful ones, in my opinion–one which I sewed, and fastened with a button, and one which was made of black and white card-stock sort of origamied together–got returned to me, and uglified by the post office, the former with printed postage stuck on in the worst possible way, the latter covered with a bunch of unncessary tape.  In most of the letters I included a few doodles or illustrations; one of them was written on the backs of a series of watercolors of imaginary moths.

The interesting thing about writing every day, by hand, so that no record exists, is that I barely remember what I wrote in any of them; they blend together.  Normally I have a sort of spatial sense of memory, but I’m basically unable to be voluntarily creative or productive before sundown, so almost all of my letters were written in the same situation: the letter written sitting up in bed, the envelope made at my desk.  There are a couple of examples that I remember a bit better than the others: to my minister friend, I wrote about the early Christian church; to my dancer friend, about the Ballets Russes; to my historian friend, I wrote in a pastiche of Gibbon.  But what about the others?  I think I wrote about La Jetée to someone: who?  What did I write to my friend Erin, who lives in St. Petersburg, or my friend Lis, who lives in Palau?  No idea.

I’m not sure if practice made my letters more perfect, although I certainly could cut an envelope in short order by the end.  One great benefit was that over the course of the month I accumulated more of the, I guess you could say, “incidental” art materials which I had abandoned in my last move: Crayola crayons, colored pens, glue stick, that sort of thing.  There’s also nothing like a deadline for getting you past certain silly roadblocks: every night I had to push aside the stuff on my desk to make the envelope, which sounds like nothing, but it’s the kind of minor inconvenience which can stop me dead before I even start to draw or sew something.  And so today, for example, with the precedent established, I shoved everything aside to make an attempt at a hat for a doll–the idea of which I had while writing one of my letters and staring at my box of incidental art materials.  So, even if I hadn’t, by writing all these, communicated with over 20 friends I’ve been in more or less bad touch with, I would feel the exercise was very rewarding.  And the fact is that there is nothing quite like recieving some love and regard in a paper letter.  I will definitely do it all again next year, and I encourage you to try it too.

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Month of Letters: Halfway Point

Whenever I want to feel old, I tell the college kids I know about what it was like when I was at Bard.  Nothing gets a bigger reaction than saying nobody had a celphone (the first ones appeared my Senior year and we were all amazed, saying to each other “what would anyone want a celphone for in college?”), but it’s at least as amazing that you still had to plug your computer in to a phone line and dial up for internet.  Facebook was not yet a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye: Friendster came out the year after I graduated.

One thing we did have was e-mail.  In the ugly student center they built in the middle of a previously nice field my sophomore year, there was a little area off to the side of the central atrium with a sort of e-mail bar: two long tables with tall stools and eight or ten computer terminals.  They were monochromatic, displaying only grey and black text, and all they did was access your student e-mail account.  So you could sit down, on your way from the art studio to your dorm room in Tewksbury, for example, and read and write an e-mail or two, undistracted by any other Internet time-wasters.  (There really weren’t any Internet time-wasters yet, that I can remember, except of course for AIM.)  I generally wrote at least two looong e-mails a day this way, to my friends Michele, or Emily, or Tim, or whoever else might have written.  Of course, these days, nobody writes even e-mail anymore.  We have this vague, impersonal, easy non-connection: Facebook, which sucks up all the energy we used to put into e-mail.  Am I “in touch” with Emily now?  Of course, we’re Facebook friends!  But when’s the last time we poured our hearts out to each other, like we did when we were in college and both miserably in love?  Facebook is not the place for expressing real emotions; everyone rolls their eyes at such melodramatic behavior, and it makes sense: it’s the difference between crying on a friend’s shoulder and shouting in a crowded room.  Instead everyone trades one-liners and looks wistfully (or is that just me) at pictures of their absent friends having fun.

So it’s been very interesting to write these letters.  I haven’t gotten anything back yet, so I have no idea how I’m coming across.  It’s very different even from the e-mails I used to write, and of course I’m out of practice even with those.  It’s not a conversation yet; every letter is an opening statement.  At first I was trying to update people on my life and news, but that soon got boring and a bit depressing, so I’ve been writing more about things I’ve been thinking about, reading, and so on.  But of course I’m writing every day, so I still end up writing the same things, sometimes, over and over.  It’s a kind of iterative process, as we used to say in art school; and it’s an interesting way to work through ideas.  I’ve come up with things on the third, fourth time writing about an idea that I wish I could have said the first time around, and I’ve written things the first time that it feels like I can never correctly recapture again.  Really, I haven’t been writing the same things that often, I don’t think, but it feels like it.  It almost feels like writing a blog post, without mass production.  I suppose this is why they wrote circular letters in the past.

My fond hope is that, at least to some degree, these letters start a real conversation or two again, like I used to have with so many people.  It’s actually been astonishing to realize how little I know about my friends’ lives now.  When writing to each person I want to ask questions about them, and I find I know so little, embarassingly little.  I’m only vaguely aware whether people are married or have kids, and beyond these huge life changes, generally, I know nothing.  Maybe that says more about my poor attention span and my relatively sparse use of it, but it seems to me that Facebook is the problem, giving the illusion of connection.  I’m sure for some people it’s an important and valuable connection to the people in their lives.  I know (because they say so on the Internet, in protest against people like me) that many people find that Facebook breathed new life into their relationships; but for me it has rather choked them within an inch of their lives.  I hope these letters can resucitate them.

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Month of Letters: Week 2

It’s another Sunday.  The first full week of “LetterMo” is over.  I’m feeling pretty good.  I had a bit of a setback–not concretely, but mentally–last Monday when I tried to send a letter in an elaborate envelope, which I will probably post a picture of soon, as I assume it’s arrived by now.  Anyway, I put it in the mailbox, but when the mailman came the doorbell rang.  “I love this, but it will never go through,” he said.  “It’s unmachineable.  You’ve got to take it to the post office and mail it as a package.  I saw that one you made with the map the other day, really cool!  But this, I know they’ll send it back.”  It was really great to hear his enthusiasm, but I was surprised, because it was really not that weird.  It was the size and shape of a regular envelope.  Back in college, I sent (and, especially, recieved) much more strange items, for standard postage, as far as I remember.

The worst part was that at the post office the ugly postage printout thing wouldn’t stick where it was supposed to, so they had to stick it on in such a way as to completely uglify my beautiful envelope :( Hopefully it just peels right off and the recipient can see what it was meant to look like.  Anyway, the whole thing was a bit of a momentum-breaker, right at the beginning of the week.  I also had very little resources in terms of art supplies–I’ve just moved, and all the various papery bits, half-exhausted markers, stickers, worn-down crayons, and so on, got left behind.  So my intention to make the letters, and particularly the envelopes, beautiful was really putting me to the test.  I cannibalized everything I could find, and hopefully the results were OK, but I was really getting worried that I would have to recycle envelope ideas, whcih I didn’t want to do.  Especially since the mailman was noticing!

Luckily this weekend I got to go to the craft store and I got some stuff, and in writing my first letter to a relative stranger I came up with a ‘format’ which will hopefully get me through all of those while still being entertaining.  It’s a little weird, but that’s fine.  I didn’t expect to write anyone I didn’t know this month, so I had to wing it!

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