Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Lost and Found Art: Reviving the Pictorial Webster

The Pictorial Webster's, as arranged, printed and bound by John M. Carrera
I love books with pictures. So I now find myself asking why it is that I never knew about the pictorial Webster's dictionaries being printed in the 19th century. These large books with thousands of thin pages displayed pictorial definitions rather than traditional verbal definitions. Several years ago, John Carrera discovered a copy of a pictorial Webster's under his late grandfather's favorite reading chair. After falling in love with the beautifully detailed images, he set about finding where the original typeset blocks for these images ended up. Covered with dust in drawers in Yale's library, Carrera discovered the tens of thousands of engravings that the Merriam-Webster company had gifted the institution. Over the course of the next ten years, Carrera cleaned, restored, and used the engravings to create by hand his own recreation of the pictorial Webster's. The result of his work is absolutely astonishing.
"Polypheme" to "Peach" in John Carrera's pictorial Webster's
"Acute Angle" to "Adelphia" in John Carrera's pictorial Webster's
"Rat" to "Rattlesnake" in John Carrera's pictorial Webster's
The following video shows the incredible process he uses to create these masterpieces, of which he created 4,000 by hand. Using a 1938 Model A Linotype machine, he cast the engravings on large sheets of paper, hand cut the pages, sewed the bindings, decorated the fore-edges, and added a stamp and gold leaf to the leather binding.

What an intense labor of love! I absolutely adore book arts and John Carrera's project is truly a masterpiece. It serves as a great reminder of the importance of paper-based reading materials, even though we all love our e-readers.

In that spirit, I'd like to leave you with this hilarious commercial that also extols the virtues of paper... Enjoy, my rustlers of petticoats! Until next time!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Distant Footsteps

Peruvian poet, César Vallejo
Recently, a friend of mine gave me a wonderful gift: the Complete Poetry of César Vallejo. Oh, what an amazing present! If you are unfamiliar with César Vallejo, he is one of the most renowned poets of 20th century Latin American, gaining popularity posthumously, and is credited with reinventing the ways in which Spanish, language, and poetry could be written.

This gift has come at a perfect moment, too. As the whirlwind of the end of the semester pulls me into a torrent of writing, reading, and grading, I find myself procrastinating in the most wonderfully productive way-- reading poetry. When my friend gave me the book of César Vallejo's poetry, I had an immediate impulse to recite my favorite of his poems but realized, to my dismay, that I could not even remember the poem's title. The other day, I picked up the book and decided it was high time that I find, re-read, and memorize my favorite Vallejo poem. (Besides, its national poetry month!)

César Vallejo in Nice, France in 1929
For the sake of brevity, I will only post the poem's English translation, which was done by Clayton Eshleman. The Complete Poetry is actually a bilingual edition with side-by-side Spanish/English text, so if you are interested in reading/seeing it in both languages, I highly recommend this book!
I hope you enjoy this beautifully anguished poem as much as I do.

"Distant Footsteps" from The Black Heralds (1919) 

  My father is asleep. His august face
expresses a peaceful heart;
he is now so sweet...
if there is anything bitter in him, it must be me.

  There is loneliness in the house; there is prayer;
and no news of the children today.
My father stirs, sounding
the flight into Egypt, the styptic farewell.
He is now so near;
if there is anything distant in him, it must be me.

  My mother walks in the orchard,
savoring a savor now without savor.
She is so soft,
so wing, so gone, so love.

  There is loneliness in the house with no bustle,
no news, no green, no childhood.
And if there is something broken this afternoon,
something that descends and that creaks,
it is two old white, curved roads.
Down them my heart makes its way on foot.
You can purchase the book here
Until next time, fair rufflers of petticoats!
UPDATE: I found a reading of this poem in Spanish, if you're interested in listening to it!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Autotune the Classics

The music industry resounds with the robotic twang of autotuned human voices. Autotuning is a technology applied to vocals so as to either correct a singer's pitch or to distort the singer's voice and turn it into an electronic instrument.

Autotune software was created originally by a guy named Dr. Andy Hildebrand, a classically trained flautist and geophysicist. He serendipitously discovered that he could use the same digital signal processing software he used to help oil companies locate drilling spots as a way of looping music samples and correcting pitch in recordings. (For a complete history of auto tune, see this article.)

I have been thinking a lot about autotune recently, especially as a potential metaphor for artistic, performative, and literary production in the 21st century. Many detractors of autotune worry that the near-ubiquitous "pitch-perfect" vocals of contemporary music will train our ears to only appreciate in-tune music.

Lightnin Hopkins, blues musician and complete badass. "You know the blues is jus' a funny feelin-- people call it a mighty bad disease."  

Autotune's detractors have raised what I believe to be a very important consideration, indeed. Not least of all because I believe the blues to be one of the major cultural contributions this country has made to the world-- a genre of music that resists classical pitch formalism in favor of the emotional outpouring through the voice of the human experience. Another example is Brazilian bossa nova, whose flagship aesthetic message was encapsulated in the song "Desafinado" ("out of tune"). What a terrible tragedy it would be to lose an appreciation for this music because of the obsession with perfect (inhuman) pitch.

But autotune is also used by artists trying to create a new aesthetic, and I want to appreciate this new sound, too. As I think more and more about the adjustments and innovations of autotune in music, I can't help but wonder if a parallel phenomena is creeping into performance and literature.

In particular, I'm curious about all the movie adaptations of classic literature and folk tales that has recently swept Hollywood. From Jack and the Beanstalk to the Great Gatsby, the beloved tales of literature are being transformed one by one into two hour CGI thrill rides.

Image from "Jack the Giant Slayer," a movie adaptation of the English fairytale "Jack and the Beanstalk" 
This all leads me to ponder: if autotune can train our ear to only appreciate pitch-perfect music, can movie adaptations of literature train our imaginations to visualize scenes and events from literature in CGI?

Image from the movie "Snow White and the Huntsman," adapted from the German fairytale "Schneewittchen" 
Although the recent onslaught of movie adaptations is not necessarily unprecedented; filmmakers and Disney have been producing movie versions of fairytales and literary classics for decades. But Disney and now this new CGI generation of adaptations have all propagated the moralized, happy-ending versions of the tales-- eradicating the possibility that children (and adults for that matter) should learn a lesson from these tales.

The moralized, bleached endings manipulate the ability of the story to edify: a dark and sinister conclusion is erased and the moralized versions only permit viewers (readers) to be temporarily entertained, while still be comforted by the imminent return to status quo. That is, what we are left with is temporary entertainment and permanently altered imagination (in the form of CGI). Or am I being to touchy??

And, like I said, Hollywood is not simply making-over fairytales. They are using the latest graphic imaging technology to bring to life Jane Austin, J.R.R. Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald novels... the best screenplays, it seems, comes from the tried and true stories that gild literary canons.
Image from film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma 
Image from film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

Image from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
For many of these literary classics, it is not the first time they have been adapted to the screen. But the lush visuals possible with today's technology makes them more extraordinary than ever. So allow me to admit: I LOVE THESE MOVIES (okay, not all of them, but certainly the Tolkien movies). Yet, I want to be conscious of the ways in which I allow them to affect the way my mind's eye visualizes characters, scenes, magic, blood, triumph, and defeat. This I owe to myself, and to the authors whose imaginations first glimpsed these fantastic realms.

On a final note, I'd like to add that fairytales were originally part of an oral tradition; this orality seems to place fairytales' origins in a middle ground-- neither literature nor movies-- that makes for an even more interesting angle to the question. ...

Do you think that movies are autotuning our imaginations? What do you think about Hollywood's adaptations of literature? I for one cannot WAIT for the next installation of The Hobbit...and that's ok, right!?
...but what do you, my fair petticoat rustlers, think?

Until next time-- keep rustling!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Neo Fantasy Music

Still from Woodkid's video Run Boy Run

After decades of music videos in which musicians stare directly into the camera, lip synching to their songs, and dancing about in bizarre wardrobes or their own clothing line, we have finally begun to move toward what I would like to refer to as neo-fantastical popular narrative, resulting from a productive integration of visual and auditory vocabulary. I find that the new music and short films envisioned by Woodkid is an exceptionally well done example of this phenomena. 

Still from Woodkid's video Iron
Please don't get me wrong- I adore so many music videos that are a simple, straightforward films of the musicians in the act of making music. In fact, most of my favorite musicians' videos depict them performing their hearts out, allowing the expression of the music itself to be all the visual narrative necessary to convey the poetry of their sound.

But I am fascinated by what Woodkid (alias of Yoann Lemoine--French-born musician, graphic-designer, and video director) is accomplishing with the unison of visual and musical narrative. He makes use of many symbols that have recently become integrated into the pop-vernacular, namely wild animals, feathers and fur, and geometric angles. These symbols have risen to prominence thanks to the hipster aesthetic, which has recently appropriated and re-narrativized americana imagery. The way in which the Woodkid videos compile and set into motion these images seems to create a fantastical world with a defined black-and-grey sensibility.

Still from Woodkid's video Iron
What is appealing about this world is that it is the site of an epic struggle-- not necessarily between Good and Evil, but rather between youth and mortality. The violence of living in the world is enacted often through the perspective of a child and his resistance to the unstoppable arrival of the age of reason. Other times, a man appears to be in a foreign land where, regardless of the fact that he does not speak the same language as its inhabitants, music bridges the gap between the land's urbanity and the abyss of nature.

Still from Woodkid's video I Love You
I would love to know what you think about these videos, and if you know of any other artist creating synchronized visual/musical ex nihilo in this way. Here are the three videos I refer to in the post (I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!): 

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers!! 

Monday, April 8, 2013

On the (Fore) Edge

Horse Race scene painted on the fore-edge of an 1811 version of Songs of Chace
Image via Boston Public Library site
Speaking of cross-dressing, here are some books posing as gorgeous paintings.

Woman and House scene on the fore-edge of Education of Henry Adams

Today I came across the Boston Public Library's collection of books with fore-edge hand painted artwork. I fell in love not only with the elaborate detail of the paintings themselves, but the way in which the books must be manhandled fanned in order to reveal the image. According to the website,  If the page edges are themselves gilded or marbled, this results in the image disappearing when the book is relaxed. When re-fanned, the painting magically re-appears. Here is an example of the books being twisted into just the right angle so as to display the painted fore-edge:

So these books actually have both a gilt edge to look fancy on the shelf or the reading table and the hidden painted fore-edge to entertain the reader with a scene that may or may not have anything to do with the book's content.

Man fishing scene on fore-edge of The Lives of Dr. John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton

The website has a wonderful zoom function that allows you to get a pretty close look at the intricacies of this lost art.

But hold on to your petticoats for one second, because it gets better. There is such a thing as the "Two-Way Double" in which the book's pages, when fanned one way reveal one painted scene and a completely different scene when fanned in the opposite direction.

From there, you have the "Split Double" which has two paintings per fan direction (resulting in a total of four paintings), and finally there is the grandaddy of them all: the ALL EDGE.

There are lots more to look at, my fair petticoat rustlers! Enjoy! 

People Playing Chess scene painted on Analysis of the Game of Chess