On John Crowley’s Chemical Wedding and the Switched On Pop podcast

I’m working on another long-winded blog post to follow up from the last one, but it will take me a while to think through it. So in the meantime I want to write about a couple of things about which I am currently very enthusiastic. They are my whole shit.

Whole shit no. 1: John Crowley’s Chemical Wedding


John Crowley is publishing The Chemical Wedding, his retelling of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. The latter is a somewhat mysterious book published in 1616 by a secret society known generally as the Rosicrucians. Musicologists know of the Rosicrucians (if at all) by Erik Satie’s association with a group of their self-proclaimed spiritual heirs. I could go into a thing about how the Rosicrucians were a esoteric society of secret teachers with a mission to bring spiritual enlightenment to a world riven by religious conflict, or maybe the whole thing was a prank. But I won’t, because there’s quite enough history-of-weird-ideas stuff on this blog, and what I really want to write about is John Crowley, who, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose one favorite novelist, I would say is my favorite novelist. At least, he wrote my favorite novel, Little, Big, which I tell all my friends they need to read (grabbing them by the lapels and shaking them, if necessary, to make my sincerity truly felt and known) and which they generally bog down in by about page 10o. “You’re supposed to get bogged down!,” I tell (yell at) them, but they never believe me.

An old friend, whose favorite novel was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, once told me that its formidable reputation for Teutonic longeurs was actually deserved, but that I should read it anyway, because longeurs are the point. The novel starts off with its protagonist, Hans Castorp, going about his ordinary life and preparing for a career in shipbuilding or some shit, and this part of the story is like our own daily lives, neither particularly eventful nor particularly uneventful. Then Castorp travels into the mountains to visit a cousin at a tuberculosis sanitorium and at first plans to stay only for a few days, but that turns into a couple of weeks, and then his departure is delayed again … and this part is very uneventful. It is at this point that most readers will put the novel down and give it up. Well, I guess literature is supposed to be boring …

But my friend’s point was that Mann is trying to do something very difficult here: he is trying, in prose, to convey the feeling of time slowing down. Or maybe it’s not quite right to say that time is slowing down — it’s just as true to say that years slide by in no time at all — but it’s certainly true that time begins to move differently; it takes on a different texture; its passage feels different from before. Castorp doesn’t really notice this, though, any more than we notice how different our dreams feel from the waking life we have left behind. He simply finds himself deep in the dream, folded into a blanket of congealed time. And Mann wanted to give the reader exactly that feeling too. Which is, you must admit, some trick to pull off.

So my theory is that Little, Big pulls off a similar trick. The novel starts, like The Magic Mountain, with a strenuously normal young man on a journey into a realm where time means something different — a realm from which he will never really return. The journey starts off in the world as we recognize it, on cracked blacktops past industrial parks and weed-choked vacant lots, and moves by degrees deeper into an old-weird-American magical realist hinterwelt. The young man becomes the half-unwilling protagonist (or maybe just a bit player?) in a multi-generational story of a family living in a shambling architectural folly surrounded by a wood inhabited (maybe) by fairies. I can’t possibly do justice to this long and complex novel in a single paragraph, but it’s enough here to say that one of the running conceits of the novel is the cyclical time of the seasons, and the long second section of the book takes place in the near-stasis of drowsy summer. So when you start feeling like Little, Big is going nowhere and think goddammit, Phil Ford just got me to waste ten bucks on this stupid thing, keep reading. Fall is coming, and then winter, and then spring again …

But anyway, the point is, The Chemical Wedding, an allegorical tale of spiritual enlightenment that is also just a really fascinating and peculiar story, is being retold by my favorite novelist. Really, that’s all I have to say about that. Oh, and there’s a Kickstarter for the hardback edition, which will include woodcut illustrations by Theo Fadel and promises to be a really lovely book. So pitch in if you like lovely books.


Whole shit no 2: The Switched On Pop Podcast

I was vaguely aware that the Switched On Pop podcast existed, but I never listened to it until a couple of days ago. It is now my whole shit.

I’ll admit, sometimes I roll my eyes when I hear people talking about “public musicology” as if all that is required is musicology plus the public. Which will somehow just show up if you put a simplified version of your usual academic stuff on a blog. As if the only thing that’s been preventing us from finding a public is the right platform. As if the public will turn up if only the New York Times would run my 10000-word piece on organ tuning in 16th century Zurich, suitably condensed.

The thing I have never once heard brought up in discussions of “public musicology” is the most obvious point, which is that to do public musicology, you need to entertain a public, which in turn means that you have to take entertainment seriously. But academics hate the idea of calling what we do “entertainment.” So vulgar! To call a scholar “entertaining” conjures a mental image of someone in striped pants furiously mugging with a cane and a straw boater. And this is not entirely unjustified; we’ve all seen would-be popularizers of classical music trying way too hard to be fun and madcap.


Painful to watch, really.

The thing is, entertainment has its own rules; it is its own discipline. If you want to be a public scholar, you need to learn that discipline, and it isn’t any easier than what you learned in graduate school. And you will need to stop thinking that you’re too good for the ol’ hat-and-cane, or that you’re doing anyone any favors by condescending to explain Mozart to them. Entertainment isn’t a means to an end; it is its own end. Public musicology isn’t just the spoonful of sugar that lets the medicine of classical music go down. If you’re doing it right, it is work that stands on its own merits.

The number of people who are doing it right is vanishingly small. But let’s add Nate Sloan to the roll call right now. Nate is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Stanford University, and he and his friend and fellow-musician Charlie Harding have created 36 episodes (and counting) of a podcast in which they get deep in the details of pop songcraft. I started with the most recent episode, which deals with the Jonas Brothers and its leaders’ recent bids for pop-culture reinvention. Before listening to this show I knew nothing and cared less about the Jonas Brothers; if you had told me, before I started listening to the podcast, that I was going to hear close analyses of “Cake by the Ocean” and “Close” followed by a comparison between a Disneyfied boy band and W. A. Mozart, I would have thought, ugh, this shit again.


I would have been wrong. Listen. This is what public musicology should sound like. My 14-year-old daughter overheard me listening to it while I was cooking dinner and was at first suspicious (“is that music theory?”) but is now hooked on the show. That’s a test as rigorous as peer review right there.

Bonus shit: My Hairless Face

Last week I was trimming my beard and just kept on going. So I am now, for the first time in 23 years, beardless.


Consider what that means: the last time I shaved, it was during the first months of Bill Clinton’s first term. And the internet didn’t exist. My wife and I have been together for 22 years and she had never seen my face. (She took it pretty well.) I have been having fun walking around Bloomington for the past few days and seeing people I’ve known for years walk right past me without a flicker of recognition. This was OK for a while, but at a certain point I get tired of having to say “Hi! It’s me! Phil!” So herewith a picture of my hairless (if five-o’clock-shadowed) face.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to On John Crowley’s Chemical Wedding and the Switched On Pop podcast

  1. Chris Smith says:

    Huge fan of Little, Big here. And yes, mostly people don’t get it.

  2. Jonathan D Bellman says:

    Guess I’ll have to read *Little, Big*. N.B. Without the beard, the academic ill-humor remains undimmed!

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