Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beowulf: a glimpse into a dignified era

Beowulf was one of those reads I picked up to satisfy my desire to start at the very beginning with my study of English literature. To my surprise, I enjoyed reading it more than anything else I can remember reading since E.M. Forster's Room With a View.

The most astonishing thing about Beowulf was the quality of the writing. The poet's deft and innovative way with figurative language took my breath away. Pains were taken in every case to describe things in new terms. In addition, this careful attention to diction was combined with passion for drama and good storytelling. The resulting effect? Flawless. I can't count how many times I paused while reading to marvel at the perfection of it all.

With every work of art I enjoy, I always ask myself why I think it was created. In this case, I believe Beowulf was created for multiple purposes including the preservation of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon pagan culture and genealogy; an exploration of language in the spirit of art-for-art's sake (the Beowulf poet famously invented words that were never used in any other manuscripts from the period); and sheer entertainment. However, the beating heart of this work, in my opinion, is the poet's desire to explain the divine order of things. Fate determines every outcome and fate is controlled by God. People who live virtuous lives have God and fate at their side; mortality, however, guarantees that everyone's luck will run out at some point . . . in the vast scheme of things, we are all in God's hands and will return to our maker. For the virtuous, death is not be mourned. Beowulf, the virtuous and heroic king, dies a "majestic death."

That phrase really caught my attention. How glorious, to die a "majestic death." And wouldn't it be even more glorious to believe that such a thing existed? The faith of the Beowulf poet intrigued me. His utter trust in the cosmic order of things felt, well, not of this world.

I wish I could meet the Beowulf poet for lots of reasons. I'm impressed by his craftsmanship and touched by his preoccupation with the noble and the good. Last but not least, I admire his imagination. According to the introduction, he worked hard to resurrect the customs and language of an era that was obsolete to him. He wrote in the 10th century about the 5th or 6th centuries . . . what passion!

Beowulf, the sine qua non of poems. Now one of my all-time favorite reads.

Phish died and went to heaven and then recorded their trip!

That's right! Phish's latest, Joy, has a holiness about it. That band is in a very good place emotionally right now. Their latest album is has a "celebrate life" vibe to it that is very infectious.

Interesting thing to me about Phish is that, on the one hand, a lot of their material sounds like it comes straight out of the canon forged by The Grateful Dead and the Band. The guitarist sounds like a perfect fusion of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. I swear I can't hear anything "new" about their sound, and yet they do not sound like a retro cover band. Their sound is not at all nostalgic. And when I turn on Phish, I don't feel like some old fogie enjoying old music disguised as new music. But when I listen to some of the latest garage rock bands on XM radio, I do. (Those people acid-tripped their way back to the 60s, it's quite remarkable). So what can possibly explain the phenomenon? It really is very, very curious . . .

Sondre Lerche and the problem with the singer-songwriter genre

Just listened to Sondre Lerche's latest, Heartbreak Radio. You know, it's a shame that Sondre can't consistently write catchy Europop hits as adorable as he is. This last album was very lovely, but I got bored. And I'm not even saying it's his fault. Pretty chords, pretty melodies, witty lyrics and stories I had no interest in because they were so darn pretty. But there's more: I finally realized why I have beef with the singer-songwriter genre.

What is the purpose of a beat?

The singer-songwriters use a beat as a means for keeping time, a way to keep everyone playing together and, in general, as a way to structure the music.


Everyone knows a beat's sole reason for existing is to make you wanna dance or headbang or something. If it doesn't make you move, it's time to scrap that beat and make a new one.

Too many singer-songwriters waste their beats. Bad mistake! Bad mistake! I'll bet money on this: every great song has a great beat.

Empire Records . . . a fun flick

I'm working my way through EWU's course on "Coming-of-Age Movies with Killer Soundtracks." Empire Records was the most frivolous pick so far, but it's very entertaining to watch for two reasons. For one, the casting was excellent. For another, you can never go wrong with teenage antics set against a backdrop of feel-good monster hits. It's amazing how one never tires of certain things, like the "be yourself" theme or watching people fall in love or witty repartee. Funny how this movie made me nostalgic about being a teenager even though being a teenager is so not fun . . . at least it wasn't for me, anyway. Anyhoo, the movie let me relive what for me never was; and I enjoyed the music quite a lot.

A few favorite lines:

"This music is the glue of the world, Mark. It holds it all together. Without this, life would be meaningless."

"Always play with their minds."