Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sinn Féin

For several years following my acquisition of an advanced degree in Fine Art, I followed a career path common to painters and artists of all kinds. I tended bar. I worked at an Irish bar in Westport, Connecticut and sometimes on St. Patrick's Day a group of customers would bring a small bottle of food coloring in with them in order to dye their beer green. Doubtless, they thought this would endear them to the Irish regulars. On the contrary, this marked them as helpless amateurs. If they continued with that kind of silly behavior, we sometimes had to take our shillelagh from under the bar and rain blows on them, driving them out into the parking lot.

No, we, ourselves, those of Irish ancestry, are not known for our delicacy or formal manners. It was one of the things that drew the American painter, Robert Henri, to the island. Henri, author of The Art Spirit, was an important figure in American Realism and a leader of the so-called Ashcan School of American painting. Critic Robert Hughes referred to Henri as "vulgar" and he meant it as a compliment. To the best of my knowledge, Henri had no Irish heritage himself, but traveled often to Ireland. One of Henri's more famous paintings is a portrait of Johnny Commins, an older resident of Achill, Ireland, who sat for Henri during one of his many visits. The painting is titled Himself and is a good example of a distinct use of reflexive pronouns by the Irish. You could also hear the construction coming from Barry Fitzgerald in a film such as, Going My Way. I don't speak any Irish myself, but I believe this use of the reflexive is intended for emphasis. We use reflexive pronouns the same way in American English today and you sometimes even hear them referred to as "intensive" pronouns.

Himself, by Robert Henri

Not so with the reflexive pronoun in German. The language is simply chock full of verbs that require reflexive pronouns and it's a minefield for English speakers learning the language. In English, reflexive pronouns are usually optional. You can say "I'm shaving myself'" but why bother? Is it really likely that you're shaving someone else? In German however, the verb to shave is sich razieren, with the sich part being the reflexive pronoun. Forgetting to include the reflexive pronoun often changes the meaning of the verb dramatically and in the case of the verb for shaving, it simply doesn't exist without the reflexive part. Americans learning to speak German can have some cheap laughs by translating German reflexive constructions literally into English. When leaving a German I class for example, a student of German could bring down the house with a translation of a common German parting salutation: "We'll be seeing us!" Or how about a direct translation of the German expression ich freue mich! (=I happy myself?)

Yes, we Americans can laugh, but if we thought about it, we might realize that there is an important truth revealed here: a reflexive construction is one in which the subject and object of the verb are the same thing. It follows, therefore, that one only uses reflexive pronouns (myself, ourselves, etc.) when there is a matching subject for them. Right now in American English, we're experiencing a flood of reflexive usage that I can only imagine some people must feel sounds more refined. I hear it on the radio, around town and on campus, from faculty as well as students. A typical example would be something like, "The nachos were brought by, like, Bobby and myself." Ugh! Combined (as it often is) with the passive voice, it's like scratching your fingernails across a particularly nasty grammar chalkboard.

How did this usage become so popular? Did Seinfeld start it? Was it politicians, that group which popularized such classic expressions as "At this point in time...?" Or maybe this construction was encouraged by those adults who were always correcting grammar by saying, "Bobby and I!" when their children proudly announced "Bobby and me went swimming!" I don't know. And ultimately, I don't care, but my feelings about this stilted use of the reflexive pronoun are about the same as my feelings about yahoos who drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day. One should always keep a shillelagh close at hand.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Balkan Pop

A normal day for me, on campus at Utah State University, involves wearing many hats. I might begin my day in my office, responding to e-mails. Some will deal with a search going on in a neighboring department where my expertise as a generic run-of-the-mill "artist" justifies my participation. In a meeting later that day I might be sitting around a table with a group of important administrator types, interviewing a candidate for a high level position such as Dean. At noon I might be on the phone with a gallery director in the Bay Area negotiating the dates of an upcoming show. At surprisingly rare intervals, I might even be standing before a class of undergraduates, trying to explain the importance of abstract systems in the construction of a painting. Yesterday, in fact, I did all those things and more besides. The variety of my day can be a challenge under the best of circumstances, but I am handicapped by a brain that plays a sound track for me during virtually all of these activities. Sometimes the rhythm builds in a way I can't control and I feel an almost irresistible urge to get up and dance. I live in near constant fear, that in the most inappropriate of situations, I may find myself standing on the boardroom table, belting out a line like "Disko, disko, Partizani!" from the internal soundtrack. Would I ever live down the embarrassment?

I think a lot of us suffer from at least a mild case of the Idee Fixe. In the pre-iPod era, you'd be on your way out of the house in the morning, and before you could react and turn it off, the radio would inject a song like Ballad of the Green Berets, or These Boots are Made for Walking' into your head. It would play all day and there was no way to shake it. Today the problem is different. I can easily control what goes into my head most of the time, so the danger isn't that I'll spend a day running through the theme song to F Troop. Now my concern is that really, really good music will get in and take over my body. And lately, the music I'm most afraid of is the fabulous Balkan Pop from German recording artist, Shantel.

Shantel is the stage name of Stefan Hantel, born in Mannheim on January 1, 1968. Hantel grew up in Frankfurt and got his start in music as a DJ. I read an interview with him recently in Die Zeit and find his music outrageously compelling. In the interview he describes how he grew up playing a variety of musical instruments and was influenced by his grandparents who came out of Bukowina, an old Duchy of the Habsburg Empire. Hantel got involved in the Techno scene of European dance clubs but was sidetracked by gypsy brass bands from Eastern Europe that appeared on the scene after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The sound of these Balkan brass choirs reminded him of his early childhood and he began incorporating eastern rhythms and harmonies into the DJ mixes he did in German dance clubs. Many years later, he has numerous recordings and a film sound track to his credit and he has become a kind of cottage industrial giant of Balkan Pop.

Shantel has a great website and I'll post a link to it in the Forschungsjahr sidebar. I could try to describe his music, but it's better to just listen for yourself. As a start, I'll include a music video from his 2007 album below. He has a new CD out as well, Planet Paprika, that I haven't heard much of yet, but I'll be getting around to it soon. Delayed gratification builds character. And given the addictive nature of Shantel's music, a strong character is highly recommended.