Tuesday, August 14, 2012

`This Is a Browsing Book'

You can rely on Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), the Russian-born American composer, wit and friend of Frank Zappa, to provide diverting bedtime reading. I dip periodically into the eighth edition of his Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music (1994), the fifth edition of Music Since 1900 (1994) and his Lexicon of Musical Invective (1952). Now I’m enjoying Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes (1948), which opens not with an introduction or foreword but an “Apologia”: 

“This is a browsing book intended for non-consecutive reading, and it was put together non-consecutively on non-consecutive days.” 

The tone is characteristic. Slonimsky was a notably finicky lexicographer, obsessive about accuracy and comprehensiveness, but he never let scholarly devotion get in the way of a good story or laugh. In his chapter about American music, “Red, White and Blue Notes,” Slonimsky includes a brief entry titled “Ugly Jazz”: 

“When in August 1946 the National Association of Teachers of Speech was asked to name the ten ugliest words in the English language, `jazz’ figured among them. The remaining nine were: phlegmatic, crunch, flatulent, cacophony, treachery, sap, plutocrat, gripe, and plump.” 

Odd that most of the words judged ugly in 1946 sound, to my twenty-first-century ears, funny. Take phlegmatic, one of the classical four temperaments, meaning to have a calm and quiet disposition, as opposed to being choleric, sanguine or melancholy. Mistress Quickly says in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I beseech you, be not so phlegmatic. Hear the truth of it: he came of an errand to me from Parson Hugh.”  Phlegmatic doesn’t sound phlegmatic, especially the phlegm- part. It sounds uncomfortable and funny. 

Sap – very funny. Packed into three letters starting in sibilance and ending with a plosive, it’s a word with numerous mutually exclusive meanings: a spade or mattock, “the vital juice or fluid which circulates in plants,” “the process of undermining a wall or defensive work” (think of sapper, Uncle Toby and Trim), “one who studies hard or is absorbed in books,” “a simpleton, a fool” or a blackjack. In the fifteenth century it referred to ear-wax. In 1598, John Florio, the first translator of Montaigne into English, writes in Worlde of Wordes: “Zappa, a mattocke to dig and delue with, a sappe.” Zappa is Italian for “hoe.” 

And best of all, flatulent, which is funny not only for its referent and subsequent metaphoric uses, but for its sound. Flatulence is not “flat.” It implies a moist roundness, and “-lent” doesn’t help. When I was a kid and someone suggested the word to me as a polite substitute for “fart,” itself a funny word, I was skeptical. Now I use it almost exclusively as a metaphor for verbosity and bombastic long-windedness. 

About jazz: a word with an obscure, contentious and impolite etymology. Today it can even refer to Kenny G. Later in Anecdotes, Slonimsky devotes ten pages to the word, including an entry he titles “Shakespeare on Boogie-Woogie: 

“Shakespeare’s prophetic soul anticipated even boogie-woogie: `How sour sweet music is when time is broke and no proportion kept.’” 

That’s the king speaking in Richard II, Act V, Scene 5: 

“Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To cheque time broke in a disorder'd string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.”


George said...

One detects an ideological bias in there somewhere, though why "plump"? An overstuffed English teacher, perhaps, didn't make it very far into Ulysses

B.R. said...

This made me laugh out loud: "Today it can even refer to Kenny G."
I think wicked-droll is the poetic term for this.

Jeff Gee said...

Ubuweb hosts an astonishing (well, I was astonished) 4 minute performance by Slonimsky, then over 90. a piano solo, followed by two songs from his cycle of advertising songs (“In 1924, Slonimsky, mostly to amuse his friends at the Eastman School of Music, set to music the text of several Saturday Evening Post advertisements...”). “Children Cry for Castoria” is gold. It’s located here, along with one of the old laxative ads. (I couldn’t get their ‘listen’ button to function with either Internet Explorer or Firefox, but if you click the song hyperlink itself, it will play on your computer’s default music player. Or you can download it).