Way-Back Wednesday: Manifesto from an Angry Young Composer

As I continue to work on my novel and prepare a long-form essay about leaving academia, here’s another piece of non-blog work. I wrote this one as a master’s student in composition and music history. Looking back, I find it’s actually a pretty reasonable precursor of my doctoral research. There are all sorts of things “PhD me” would tell “new grad student me” about sociology and power structures and different kinds of capital. PhD me, though, is much less in tune with the aesthetic and creative issues that drove me back then. You could probably predict, too, that I was headed for musicology—why else would I put so many references in a manifesto?


How many times have you (or I) walked out of a contemporary music concert thinking “this or that piece was well-constructed, but it didn’t really do anything for me.” Craftsmanship does not equal quality. Style doesn’t equal content. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Too often, I think, composers write to show what they know, to show off this or that theory or technique that they have developed/adopted/adapted/refined. The worst cases in my experience are often serialist pieces wearing their tone rows on their sleeves. You listen to the first twenty seconds and have a fair idea of how the next twenty minutes will go. In the very worst cases, you’re actually right.

The development of music theory as an independent discipline has produced a variety of interesting new ideas about what music is and how music works. These ideas, though, are completely divorced from any sort of context. Music theory becomes a game of numbers, not of sounds. Numbers alone do not make good music.

Yet many composers insist on mastery of theory and numbers. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I ignore set theory or serial technique or even (gasp) “common practice” tonality. Composing music requires some way of understanding and structuring sound. Theory is a good way to do that. Learning music theory gives the composer tools.

It does not give the composer music.

Mastery of theory and other compositional techniques (formal balance, orchestration, et cetera) does not automatically lead to good music, let alone great music. Writing music to display one’s mastery of theory leads, at best, to mediocre music. The composer must control the tools, not be controlled by them.

(my) Good music has something to say. It needn’t be a profound philosophical statement. Existential angst doesn’t make for good music to any greater extent than music theory does. The composer can be saying something as simple as “this is beautiful” or “have you ever really heard cracking ice?”

“Emotional” content is not automatically something to say. Listen to good movie scores in context (with the movie). There’s your proof, if you need it, that music can be used as a tool to stir emotions. Writing emotionally loaded music of that variety is ultimately just as craftsman-like as producing a competent neo-serial work.

As Modernism took over cultural authority from Romanticism, much was made over the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Modernism praised the former and distinguished it from the latter. The sublime, by this line of thought, is vast. It is the ineffable, the brooding purple mountains glowering against the sunset. To create a sublime work of art is a form of escapism. Flee the trials of the everyday and take refuge in the delights and terrors of pure emotion. Modernist beauty, on the other hand, aspires to what T.E. Hulme poetically calls “dead crystalline forms.” It is an art of geometry, proportion, of clarity and balance. (For a more thorough description of the beautiful versus the sublime, see Richard Taruskin’s “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past” in Text and Act or Authenticity and Early Music.)

I believe that good music cannot dwell wholly in either of these camps. Life has sublime moments, but it is not made of them entirely. The excesses of Late Romanticism pretended that it was, and created towers of stacked thirds and unresolved dominants that eventually toppled under their own weight. But life is not dead. It is not still, nor is its motion wholly the precise, ordered motion of Modernist machinery. There is room and need for both the rational and irrational in music.

All this comes around eventually to showing what you know versus saying what you have to say. The modernist path has led to ever more precise, more crystalline forms (reaching their stereotypical apex in the works of Milton Babbitt). Emphasis on rational thought and structure forced more and more detached thinking into music. (It is no coincidence that when Babbitt was creating compositional machinery to control every aspect of a musical work, John Cage was turning his compositional machinery over to chance operations. “Total” control and “non”-control produced works that are, on occasion, strikingly similar.) This detached thinking accelerated the growth of music theory and its place in composition. More theory and more rationalism led to a music of display: contrapuntal technique, serial technique, you name it. To be taken seriously as a composer, you had to show that you knew your stuff. You did this by writing pieces demonstrating your mastery of “new” theories (serialism was hardly new in the 1970s). The legacy of that is composition focused on complexity, on demonstrating that one has the knowledge to produce and control that complexity.

Instead of the product of knowledge, music should be the product of thinking. Pondering, if you prefer, for pondering is not so loaded with rational modernist connotations. Think and feel your way to the sounds and through them. Don’t discard your knowledge; while craftsmanship isn’t a free pass to writing good music, it is a necessary step. The necessary balance is not inherently one of form or content. The necessary balance is one of cold construction and the unruly chaos of indulgent feeling. Somewhere in that balance, there is something to say.

That something is the serious side of music. Earlier segments of the manifesto state that music should be fun. I have hardly forgotten that, but it’s a discussion for a different moment.

Further elements in an ongoing conversation:

I don’t have some magical resolution to offer on the issue of listening versus hearing, nor on coping with opened ears…I caught myself wanting to transcribe the squeaking of a particular door in the library the other day. The point about horses and water is a good one. I want something clever to say about putting carrots in the water (or apples, because all the horses I’ve known have preferred apples to carrots), but I don’t have any substance to match the analogy to. Upon reflection, I believe that part of my argument is about leading the water to the horse. Too often, “art” music pools in the concert hall, hoping that maybe, just maybe, a horse will come along. If the horse actually stops to drink, that’s cause for celebration. Music that goes (to get back to one of my favorite terms) is water that flows or springs up someplace closer to the horse and doesn’t wait for the horse to wander by or for someone to lead the horse in.

Reflection has also led me to believe that my statement about “saving music from itself” was unnecessary hyperbole. I didn’t even mean it at the time, at least not the way that it came out. I am most interested in saving my own music from itself, from getting tangled in too much theory and too much academic scene. There are times when I just want to buy a banjo and sit on the sidewalk and play and tell stories. But I theorize a bit much for that. A product of those reflections on saving music from its academic inclinations appears above.

As this is, after a fashion, a conversation in letters, allow me to jump to a different point, the point that the last volley closed on: immediacy. “Does the immediacy, or physicality of a performer’s presence make something more musical?”

No, it doesn’t.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t that immediacy or lack thereof makes something musical or prevents it from being musical. It is that immediacy and uncertainty create engagement. It’s just as true for a circus act, theatre, or sports as it is for music. Not many people watch recordings of old baseball games. (I admit that some do, and that the correspondence is not exact, but this isn’t an exercise in rhetoric yet. Never mind the question of watching baseball games that are recorded and end up on your television a fraction of a second later.)

I can’t say that electroacoustic music or symphonic music or any other kind of big/boxy music is unmusical. There are incredible electroacoustic pieces and there are incredible orchestral pieces that take full advantage of their respective media. Immediacy is not a criterion of musicality per se. I believe, though, that it can be an important advantage for music.

Much of music exists in the space between people: the space between the composer and the performers, the space between one performer and another, the space between the performers and the audience. Music lives in those spaces, not on a printed score or on a recording. [I point out as an aside that pure electroacoustic music changes these spaces considerably, virtually eliminating the space between composer and performer and, as mentioned elsewhere, transforming the space between the perform(ance) and the listener. This is by no means an automatically bad thing.] Scores and recordings are useful. The best recordings capture some of the lightning of those spaces (although the slicker the production, the cleaner and more thoroughly edited the recording, the smaller and less meaningful the spaces become).

Music that goes aims at revitalizing spaces. For the space between performer and listener, immediacy and a dose of the unexpected can be vitalizing agents.

Ghosts of the Old City: An Evening with Zahra

Working on a long-form essay about leaving academia and flailing along at Camp NaNoWriMo have eaten up my writing time this week. In lieu of a proper post, here’s another excerpt from Ghosts of the Old City

Above Zahra’s head and beyond the carefully crooked alleys of Old Sakurdrilen, the three lights burned. Within the walls, though, the city sang a darker tune as the last wisps of day fled the sky. Oh, the coffee houses and restaurants were safe enough. Little troubled the grounds of the University or the neighboring offices of government and business. But outside, on the streets, Old Sakurdrilen crawled with all that hid from the sun. Prostitutes and pickpockets, fortune tellers and cut-rate alchemists…if you could not find what you wanted—for some price—on the night streets of the old city, it was not worth having.

This is what they don’t understand. Zahra thought. This is why I dare the Owls. And why I’ve no coin to pay them off. At night, she danced over walls, through locked doors. She played tunes with her picks and knives and made and lost fortunes by morning. Zahra prowled Eelsward. There would be time for adventure later. For now, the wine in her stomach desperately wanted company. Rolen would have food. He might even have a story to send the evening forward.

Her brother’s shop was half underground. The upper floor was filled with curios and oddities, sailors’ talismans and relics collected from around the world. The heart of Rolen’s business, though, was in the basement. People left their names upstairs and their coin below, or traded valuable nothings for heavier purses. The basement smelled alternately of hot metal and exotic incense. Rolen kept the lights dim. Even if he hadn’t been her brother, he still would have been Zahra’s favorite shifter.

“Good evening, miss. Rolen’s downstairs.”

Zahra nodded curtly and headed downstairs. She didn’t like her brother’s taste in women, nor that he tended to leave them in charge of the shop whenever he was conducting more serious business below.

“Rolen! What have you got to eat?”

Rolen grunted and set down his tiny pliers. “Hello, sister dear. You got the gig, I take it?”

“Is it that obvious?” Rolen nodded his reply. Zahra relented. “Yes, yes. We got the gig. And he paid half up front. It is a fine night to be alive. But what have you got to eat?”

“Half a roasted chicken, what’s left of this morning’s bread, and some carrots.” But Zahra had already spotted it on the table behind the workbench. She casually vaulted the bench to rip a leg off the chicken. “Help yourself.”

Zahra swallowed and grinned. “Thanks. How’s business?”

“Slow. But that’s not a bad thing, you know. Not all the time. The Watch has been pushy lately. I don’t mind the quiet. It gives me a chance to spread some money around where it won’t bother them.”

“Alyn tried to talk you into investing again?”

“When doesn’t he? But he knows better than to push it. If I wanted that life, I would just take it. I can be happy Alyn is succeeding without wanting to be him. I don’t know if he’s ever understood that.”

“It wasn’t always like that.”

“We’re not ten anymore, Zahra. I don’t need him to be the fastest, strongest, smartest brother ever.”

“You left out ‘most honest.’”

“Pfeh. That, he can keep.” Rolen picked the pliers back up and resumed removing the jewels from a necklace. “I thought you’d be out with Talu and Pavon.”

“Pavon and Talu,” Zahra said, “are busy becoming a couple. They don’t need me along. Besides, can’t you smell the city tonight? They would not come out with me.”

“All I smell is my food that you’re eating. Like I said, it’s been quiet. Even for the Owls, I hear.”

“Don’t tell me about them. They—“

“You can’t just laugh them off, Zahra. They’ll kill you if you push them too far. Don’t think they won’t.”

“I don’t want to join their stupid club.”

Rolen plucked an emerald out of its setting and placed it in small dish. “They don’t care what you want. They care what you do. It might not be so bad. They have a lot of, ah, resources. Kit and tricks you don’t know. Why do you push against it so hard?”

Zahra’s answer was quiet. “They’d make me quit playing. Dad wouldn’t want that. And mom wouldn’t want me to be involved in any of this stuff in the first place.”

“If this Toja gig opens the right doors for you, do you think you’ll stop?”

“A night like this, and you ask me that? You’re such an ass.”

“I mean it! You can’t have a foot in the day and a foot in the night. Not here. You have to fall one way or the other, and nobody’s going to be there to catch you.”

“You work your shop in the day.” Zahra retorted.

Rolen shook his head. “I keep up appearances. It’s not the same thing.”

“Nobody’s caught me yet!”

“You think I didn’t hear what happened? I get Owls down here sometimes.”

Zahra somehow turned biting a carrot into a defiant gesture. “So?”

“So give me some credit. You have to either get out of the old city or pick a side.”

“What I need is a score for tonight.”

Rolen sighed. “We’re not done with this conversation.”


“Milliner at the center of Lec. Gold buckles, gold leaf. Morsi lace.”

“For hats?”

“Who knows what the gentry’s wearing this season? It came up from the harbor this afternoon. Easy stuff to shift, but I can’t give you too much for it unless you take the whole lot.”

“How much?”

“To sell? I’ll make it an orb an ounce. Half-groat a yard for the lace—not much market for that.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“I hear he bought new locks to go with the shipment. He’s worried about the Owls.”

Zahra pulled a stool to Rolen’s bench. “How new?”

“Parukhi. That’s all I know. My tip didn’t say anything else about the locks, just the valuables.”

“Useless! They could be almost anything.”

Rolen grinned. “The owner got new locks. Because he worries about the Owls. That isn’t enough for you? That is not the action of somebody who means to cheap out.”

“You think they’re good ones?”

“I’m sure they’re good ones.”

Zahra bounced to her feet. “Fine, then. You’re sure?”

“God’s breath, Zahra! Yes. Yes, I’m sure. Go see if you can pick them already.”

Zahra gave her brother a peck on the cheek. “Thanks. For the food, I mean. I’ll see you before sunup.”

New, Improved (?)

I started this blog in something of a hurry, intent on getting something up to establish my presence on the web. That meant grabbing a WordPress theme (Wu Wei) and slapping words into it. I enjoyed Wu Wei’s minimalist aesthetic, and didn’t tweak it beyond altering the color of the header text. It was time for that to change. Among other things, I wanted more information “above the fold.” (I am charmed that this newspaper term has transferred so smoothly over to the world of screens.) Wu Wei shuffled lots of things to the very bottom of the page; the new theme (customized Suits) gives me a proper sidebar. I also wanted some color and a stronger visual identity for the blog. As a bonus, the newer theme should also make Walking Ledges a little more friendly for those of you who follow it on phones or tablets.

Expect more (probably small) tweaks as I dig into the .css and make this a little more my own.

Six Years Later: In Memory of My Father

Six years ago (almost to the hour as I type this), I was sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, about to get on a plane to Boise. I know that, but only because I know the date and remember when that last direct flight left. At the time, I was skimming the surface of everything, because getting past the surface meant hurting and confusion. It had only been a few hours since I’d been sitting at my computer, swapping virtual crafting items on WoW with my brother, when he abruptly typed “you need to call home.” That was weird, and I asked some question about it. My brother re-iterated that I needed to call home. I did.

My dad was dead.

Aside from hugging my infant son a little harder than he liked, I sort of managed to hold things together for forty minutes until my wife got home from work. I needed to get back to Idaho more urgently than I had ever needed to get anywhere. I made phone calls and booked tickets. I remembered to find somebody to cover my music history sections. We packed in a hurry, and left in such a hurry that we forgot our dress clothes for the funeral. (Our landlord was kind enough to go get them the next morning and overnight them to Idaho.) Surface things. We got to Boise and…went to a hotel right next to the airport. As much as I wanted to be home, it was nearly midnight and the roads were icy. Nobody was in shape to come pick us up. We went out to the house the next morning when my brother and aunt came in.

I won’t rehash the next few days. People filled up the house. I made it through the eulogy without dissolving wholly into tears. My son—a week short of his first birthday—charmed everybody and reminded us all that life goes on. It did. Soon enough I was back in Minnesota trying to catch up on Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Nattiez and teaching Renaissance polyphony. I cried. I worried about my mom. In the arbitrary way that songs get stuck to events in our heads, The Killers’ “Tranquilize” (featuring Lou Reed, who’s now dead too) stuck to me for the next few months.

We get good at the surface things. It is how we make it through our days—commutes, work, the dirty dishes in the sink. Looking past surfaces isn’t always the window to desolation it was that night six years ago, but I still miss my dad whenever I think of him. The first time I visited my mom’s house after she’d moved to Nebraska, I walked through it after everybody had gone to bed. And I cried and cried because there were pictures of my dad and some of his things, but there was nothing of him there. It was a house he had never set foot in, and he never would. The pictures were only there for the rest of us.

Both of my parents read to me, but it was my dad’s books that hooked me. I may have gotten the words from my mom, but my stories owe a lot to my dad. I tried his Louis Lamour westerns. The Hobbit really got me, though. He read it out loud over weeks of bedtimes when I was little. I read it myself around second grade and, the following summer, cajoled my grandmother to find me a copy of The Two Towers, since I had only brought The Fellowship of the Ring to California with me. From there it was off to the races bookstore, and soon after to the keyboard to try my hand at my own stories. My reading habits were more like my mom’s: I read fast and often skip around (habits that carry over to my writing). My dad didn’t read like that. He read slowly and meticulously. He always read the end last. He digested books.

Years later I’m still working on digesting his absence. I feel it a little every time I have to drag my family out of bed in the morning (I was just as hard to get out of bed when I was a kid). I feel it when I cook something I’ve never cooked before, or when I’m trying to explain something that I picked up in years of watching him at home and at the restaurant. Tonight I walked my sister-in-law through roasting pork loin and potatoes, and a pan of brussels sprouts. We tested the doneness with our fingers, and I had to dig for an explanation that was clearer than “it feels done.” I think he would have appreciated it.

I also think he would have liked to come visit us here. It’s easy for me to imagine taking my dad downtown and sampling food trucks before catching some live music. I can almost hear him in our living room, holding forth a little too loudly on something he’d seen on Food Network. I remember him reading Green Eggs and Ham to his infant grandson and know his granddaughter would have charmed him to pieces. I know how enthusiastic he’d be for the stories I’m working on.

Mostly, though, I just miss him. I just miss him.

Pulp Fiction Redux: Swords, Sorcery and Fritz Leiber

“This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the end and black comedians for all eternity…”
—Fritz Leiber, preface to the 1973 printing of Swords and Deviltry

The towering barbarian Fafhrd and the nimble Gray Mouser are as iconic a duo as Batman and Robin. They ought to be more iconic, even, since neither exists alone. (Never mind that the small one hasn’t died any more often than the tall one.) The pair are the most enduring creation of Fritz Leiber (1910-1992). Leiber contributed short stories to Weird Tales and other pulp publications before the Second World War. He was influenced by Lovecraft’s mythos, and later by Jung and Campbell. He introduced Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in 1939, in a story called “Two Sought Adventure,” but his first books were collections of horror and science fiction shorts. He won a Hugo for his sci-fi novel The Wanderer, and went on to collect other Hugos, Nebulas, and a host of lifetime achievement awards. He’s also one of the progenitors of urban horror. Influential dude.

Fafhrd and the Mouser were conceived as pulp heroes along the lines of a Conan or an Elric (though they predate the latter). Leiber co-created them with his friend Harry Fischer, though Leiber ended up doing the lion’s share of the work after. Fafhrd and the Mouser were, like so many other pulp fantasy heroes, creatures of short stories. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, when Leiber was sorting out early stories for book publication, that they had a proper timeline and the chance to operate in longer forms. The books started coming out in 1969, and kept coming at irregular intervals until 1989, a few years before Leiber’s death.

Aside from being a duo, what made Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser different? For one, they were funny. Leiber’s writing is tremendously clever. A publisher’s blurb calls it “dry wit,” which is apt enough. The stories are the kind of funny that leads consistently to grins and seldom to laughter. Compared to anything by Howard and most of Moorcock’s work, the F&GM stories might as well be stand-up comedy specials. The titular heroes drink too much, fall down, trick their enemies, trick each other…the swordplay and thefts and games with capital-D Death might be the story, but it’s hard to separate them from the fun the author—and often the characters—are having.

The stories are also profoundly strange. Moorcock sent his heroes traipsing across worlds, fighting extradimensional wizards they’d mistaken for towers, and wandering fantastic landscapes with a dose of psychedelia. Leiber keeps his locations mundane, if somewhat baroque. Even though Lankhmar, F&GM’s home city is an exceedingly odd place, its internal rules are straightforward. The strangeness in Leiber’s stories is typically internal. Rather than tripping through worlds, he sends his heroes tripping through their own heads. The two are repeatedly afflicted by spells that mess with their minds. They spend time underground and in the air. There’s a whole species of person with visible bones but invisible flesh. Lots of rats and magic potions, too.

I could go on for a while longer about the cool things in the Lankhmar stories, but I want to spend some time on the big one. Accept this list as a set of interesting curiosities: Lankhmar (the city) is important in that it’s one of the first urban fantasy settings, never mind that it’s a hive of scum and villainy to put Mos Eisely to shame. Leiber and Fischer helped develop a Lankhmar game that was published in 1976 by a fledgling company called TSR. There’s the usual squicky racial othering (Mingols?!), but it isn’t nearly as bad as the works of the earlier generation. Leiber also did more than just solidify the concept of “sword and sorcery” fantasy fiction—he probably coined the term himself.

Here’s the big thing, though…and it’s big enough to merit another quote:

“I confess I find it strange and somewhat distasteful to be forever sending other men on adventures, rather than setting forth on them myself.”
—Fafhrd, The Knight and Knave of Swords

That’s where Fritz Leiber has taken us by the late 1980s: his iconic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have grown up, become middle-aged. In their last (published) adventure, they discover their young adult children, make a kind of peace with their wives, and become, of all things, businessmen. This is, I think, one of the more extraordinary developments in fantasy fiction: Leiber lets his heroes grow up. Their adventures have consequences. Their dalliances have quite literal consequences that show up with identifying birthmarks.

This was a huge deal for pulp heroes, even though by the late 80s other authors were writing fantasy novels with developing heroes. For the heroes of sword and sorcery, time just didn’t happen. It might have passed, but seldom in a definite way. Stories could be logically sequenced. They existed, though, in something pretty closely resembling Bakhtin’s epic chronotope. Places and events were interchangeable. Characters did not interact with each other or their environment in ways that changed their being. Elric was always Hamlet with a demon sword. Conan was always a noble thug. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though…they changed. We get origin stories. Origin stories that make sense, even. Those happened back in the 70s. The Gray Mouser and Fafhrd grow and develop, even though they’re tangled up in perfectly pulp-y schemes. Even in the sequence of short stories, we get something like a novelistic chronotope.

The bemused distaste with which they end their adventures is as cool and worth celebrating as the fact that they began them as “the greatest swordsmen ever to be.”

The works of Fritz Leiber are widely available. White Wolf published a four-volume set of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were published in the mid-90s. That’s out of print, but there are many used copies of Leiber’s seven-volume set (the published order), as well as e-books (though I’ve heard that the e-books diverge from the published copies in places).

2013 AMS breakdown, and moving forward

Musicologist Phil Ford is smart. In my limited encounters with him, he’s also smart about the things that matter. Assuming you’re not a musicologist and don’t care about the particulars of last weekend’s conference, skip down to his fifth point. His discussion about blogging, and more particularly the points he builds out from there about improvisatory scholarship and the necessity to do what one person can do, are worth keeping in mind as we engage in our myriad projects.

A particularly striking way of describing something many of us have felt in recent years: “…it occurred to me that the old Soviet bloc represented a kind of Tyranny 1.0: it was afraid of the truth, and so worked to suppress it. The United States in the present age has figured out a better system, a Tyranny 2.0: it, too, fears truth, but has created a system in which the truth doesn’t matter.”

Dial M for Musicology

I’m back from AMS, which means I should write an AMS wrapup post. No—I get to write an AMS wrapup post.

Things that happened:

1. I got stuck in the aptly-named Dulles airport for seven bloody hours, waiting for a 40-minute puddle-jumper flight that was delayed by mechanical problems. But as luck would have it, Jim Buhler (University of Texas at Austin) and Andrea Bohlman (UNC Chapel Hill) were there too, and had the opportunity for a leisurely talk with two old friends—an enforced opportunity, yes, and in a context in which one is stripped of all agency and basic human dignity, but still, it was nice. For the rest of the AMS, dinners/drinks with other AMS friends, old and new, were for me (as for most, I guess), the highlight of the meeting.

2. My book was for sale at the Oxford booth. Wow, that’s weird, seeing your book…

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Reading Leaves that Don’t Change

Twenty seconds after I started the car yesterday, Charles Mingus’s “Better Git It in Your Soul” came on the radio. That is about as good an omen as one can wish for.

I have spent much of today trying to hold on, even a little, to the feeling I had as I walked out of BookPeople in downtown Austin last night. Big, independent bookstores are cool in their own right, but I’d made the drive downtown to go a reading by Steven Brust and Skyler White, whose new book The Incrementalists I mentioned in my author love letter to Mr. Brust. Mr. Brust wore the expected hat and the expected mustache. The reading itself entertained. I’m looking forward to my turn to read the book—what I’ve heard thus far reminds me of Zelazny. (My wife gets first crack at it, since it is something of a mutual birthday present and hers comes before mine.)

Mr. Brust was kind and clever. Ms. White was jovial and sweet. They handled the signing line with aplomb. In a cool twist, they had the people they were signing for sign their own copies of The Incrementalists. I mentioned to Mr. Brust that I had written an author love letter to him just after he’d finished writing “Happy Birthday” in my copy. (I knew he had seen the original post, since he retweeted the link.) He smiled and said, “That was very sweet. I wish you’d told me that before I signed it. I would have written something nicer.” Happy birthday and a dash of warm fuzzies were fine.

My way-back-ground is in English and writing, but most of the last decade for me has revolved around music. There is a feeling you get after a good show. Partly, it’s available to everybody—that feeling of having been moved, of having for a moment set aside the arbitrary limits of time and space. For musicians, there’s sometimes another level: the feeling that you can do something like that, that you want to do something like that. You can make something that will open others like you were just opened. These moments of clarity are why so many of us do art in the first place. That’s what I was feeling when I left BookPeople last night: I can do that. I want to do that.

Last night’s was amplified by my favorite kind of cool weather. It was clear and dark and the air was dry and held just a hint of edge. Perfect weather for walking around in short sleeves and appreciating the moment you step inside. That’s what fall should be like. The job hunt’s a slog, and we’re supposed to go back over 30 deg. C later this week, but for an evening, it was fall and I was happy.

Pulp Fiction: Howard and Moorcock

Elric, last lord of Melniboné, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source.
—Michael Moorcock, “The Dreaming City”

Here at Walking Ledges, I’m big into intersections, whether those are the liminal moments I mention in my “about” page, the collision of text and music that fascinated me as an undergrad, or the intersection of musicology and sociology that drove my dissertation. I’m also, as I’ve mentioned before, a gamer and fantasy enthusiast. Gamer, academic, writer, reader…those collide for me in an interest in “old” fantasy fiction and its relationship to both the newer stuff and to role-playing games.

Tolkien comes up a lot in these discussions, probably more often than he deserves. In The Hobbit and most particularly in The Lord of the Rings, the grand old linguist gave us a model “adventuring party” and established a template for worldbuilding. I’ll have more to say about the latter in other posts. The former is more salient to today’s discussion. Moving fantasy away from a single protagonist was a big deal. In the Norse and Anglo-Saxon epics Tolkien used for the bones of Middle Earth, heroes were singular, though they often had friends and companions. The Fellowship flattened those differences—Frodo is the ringbearer, but is he more important than Gandalf or Aragorn or Sam? Is the younger Baggins the center of the story?

I don’t think so. But I also believe that Tolkien offers only a small piece of RPGs’ literary ancestry. The bigger piece comes from flamboyantly singular characters: the heroes of pulp fiction. Cheap novels, serialized stories, heroes fighting impossibilities from the deep places of the world…there’d be no monster manuals without authors like Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock.

Howard gave us Conan the Barbarian. Swords, gold, princesses, exotic locations and dangerous (painfully ethnic) sorcerors and beasts…Conan took tropes from Weird Tales, twisted them, and turned them into adventure stories. They were repetitive, sure, and sometimes Howard  leaned on certain analogies a little too much. (I remember Conan being compared to a panther three times in the space of two pages.) The environments though, were inventive. And Conan was a badass. A male power fantasy, but a badass.

Howard also gave us Solomon Kane, the indomitable Puritan adventurer. He rescued damsels but fastidiously avoided despoiling them. He plunged deep into the heart of Africa chasing pirates. He befriended witch doctors and used their strange, skull-capped sticks. He fought the good fight for God and truth. And Howard wrote the stories nearly a century ago. (Attitudes toward race, class, and religion make that abundantly clear.)

Howard’s characters are impossible. Through sheer will and extraordinary ability, they topple kingdoms and survive cataclysms. They go places where natural law gives way to the supernatural. They settle disputes with their swords. They’re peculiarly American and spectacularly masculine. They exhibit their author’s distrust of civilization and longing for an imagined, wilder past. It’s no coincidence that Howard was an enormous fan of boxing, nor that he was a good friend of H.P. Lovecraft.

Michael Moorcock began in a similar vein, publishing stories in pulp magazines when he was a teenager. (It was not long before he was editing one of those magazines himself.) His heroes, though, especially the iterations of the Eternal Champion, are far more fallible. He tended to inflict creeping disabilities on them—a wasting sickness, or a magical jewel eating slowly into the skull. They were blessed and cursed to turn the wheels of fate. They quested for Tanelorn, a place of perfect peace and balance that they could never quite achieve. They brought death to their friends and enemies alike. Pyrrhic victories were the only kind they knew.

Elric is not my favorite Moorcock hero, but he’s the best known and most influential. The albino with the soul-drinking black sword, last emperor of Melniboné. He is a warrior and a sorceror. The black sword, Stormbringer, eats the souls of his enemies (and sometimes his friends) to feed him the power he needs to work his magic and defeat his enemies. He’s part demon, probably literally. He’s the first swords-and-sorcery hero I know of who wielded both.

As a character, Elric has as much in common with Hamlet as with Conan. He acts ambivalently until circumstances force his hand. He understands all too well that tragedy follows him and that, sooner or later, he will destroy what he most loves. He is almost as bad as his enemies. Almost, but not quite. He’s as much a product of mid-century Britain as Solomon Kane is of early the 20th-century U.S. Empires grow weak and crumble. In another of Moorcock’s series, “Granbretan” is a fascist-technological empire threatening to devour Europe. Hawkmoon, a German fighting on behalf of his French allies, must throw down the Granbretanian emperor.

So…what does any of this have to do with gaming? Conan and Solomon Kane and Elric lived in short stories. We might as well call them adventures. The heroes go to strange places—jungle temples, wizard’s towers, catacombs. They defeat monsters and henchmen on their way to confronting the evil master. After winning, the hero rides off with the loot and sometimes with the girl. In the next story, he does it again. And again and again and again. There isn’t epic storytelling, not at first. Moorcock later builds stories to the length of short novels and allows his characters to develop further, but in those early years there’s no more drive to save the universe than there is in Howard’s preceding work.

We probably wouldn’t have the adventuring party without Tolkien, but we wouldn’t have the adventures without the pulp authors.

Addenda: Edgar Rice Buroughs, with Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, belongs somewhere in this discussion too. I also find it interesting that Howard spent most of his life in Texas, and that Moorcock has lived here for the last 20 years or so.

If you’re interested in Howard, I suggest starting with the 2004 anthology The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (ISBN 978-0345461506). It has all of the Solomon Kane stories, as well as an excellent introduction. Moorcock’s Elric stories have been similarly collected in a multivolume collection titled Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné. (The ISBN of the first volume is 978-0345498625.) Most used book stores will have at least a smattering of Moorcock, too.

People/ Gamers

“There are people who game, and gamers who people.”
          —a certain stupid college first year

As a college freshman, I was in an odd spot. I’d spent the last two years at a school on the other side of the Atlantic. Home was 1500 miles away from Macalester, but that was 3000 miles closer than I had been a few months earlier. I’d already been through the whole “leave home and reinvent yourself” thing. I had a beard. People mistook me for a senior and constantly asked me for directions I didn’t know how to give them. The way my courses shook out in my first semester made things even easier; most of the academic ground I had to cover was familiar.

Despite all this head start (or perhaps because of it), I fell into an odd spot socially. I engaged in the usual whirl of activities freshman try on at a selective liberal arts college: I was active in the International Organization, the Mac Weekly, band…I was still playing basketball and just becoming obsessed with ultimate frisbee. It didn’t feel like trying things on, though, because I’d already been through trying things on. I was pretty convinced that I just had a wide variety of interests and was such a damn hotshot that I could pursue all of them. That put me in the middle of a very messy social Venn diagram, one in which I had slight overlap with half a dozen different social circles.

The most awkward one for me, though, was with the college’s population of “gamers.” This was 1998. Console games didn’t really have anything to do with being a gamer yet. None of them connected to the still fairly-rough-cut internet. Being a gamer meant playing role-playing games, maybe computer games and the occasional board game. (Catan, anyone?) Mac’s gamers pretty much owned a particularly long set of tables in the dining hall. I’d eat there occasionally. I met my first serious girlfriend at that table.

Still, though, it didn’t really fit for me. The gamers were weird. It was enormously hypocritical of me to think that, given the ways that I’d cultivated my own weirdness. They were socially off-kilter and their humor went to odd places. I felt kind of like I should fit. I ran a Spelljammer game on band trips. I’d run the RPG group at my high school in Wales. I had brought a few of my gaming books to college with me to take up precious space in my dorm room. Tellingly, those books stayed in a dark corner. I pitched but never started a D&D game for the people on my floor—other dabblers in gaming.

That quote above—mine, obviously—became an excuse both to feel better about myself and to keep my distance from some great people. The gamers were bad at being people, I was saying, because they were too gamery. It was too central to their identity. Their awkwardness was going to stick to them because they just didn’t do enough other things. (Truth: I was too nervous and/or condescending to ask them about their other interests. A decade later, they’ve all proven to have many.) I, on the other hand, could game as much as I wanted because I was a person who occasionally gamed. I did so many other cool things that gaming oughtn’t hold me back.

We all know that even smart people are stupid, right? I’ve said a lot of idiotically pretentious things over the years, but that “gamers who people” thing might make my top ten. Certainly the “things said outside a graduate seminar” top ten.

So much has changed in the last fifteen years. Games have invaded everything. The geeks were right. Famous funny people have publicly—proudly—admitted being geeks. You walk into the toy section at Target, you see board games marked “as featured on Tabletop”—a show, on the internet, co-created by Wil Farking Wheaton. I am so late to the party on this.

There’s no doubt that my coming to peace with my gamer-ness has been assisted by all the social and technological change. It’s also been a consequence of my slow outgrowing of high school ideas of what’s cool. Those ideas are stupidly persistent. In grad school, though, I ran into other challenges. As a writer and reader, I’ve always maintained that the best of “genre fiction” can stand alongside the books I had to read as an English major. That insistence somehow didn’t extend to intellectual credibility. A gamer who treasures Adorno’s Minima Moralia? Seriously? How can you put THAC0 and Adorno in the same head? The upshot was that as much as I might ‘fess up to being a gamer (and even played a session with my fellow grad students), those gaming books still tended to stay on a shelf in the spare room.

Don't hate me for owning 4e!

We have many shelves, but this one is the most “me.” Except for LIFE.

About a year ago, they made it out onto the “real” shelving in rooms people actually use. In the new place, they’re in the same unit as my academic books and (“serious”) literature. They’re still on the bottom shelf, because they’re mostly pretty damn heavy and will threaten the quality Swedish particleboard if they’re put any higher. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove any more. That’s one of the flip sides of the last, heavy post: letting go is hard, but it lightens you up. Gamers are people, people are gamers. Whatever. I’m okay being both now. People are people, and even the most awkward of us deserve better than restrictive labels…even when cultural changes have made it comfortable for us to re/claim them.