I went to a whole other country to go to a conference on gregorian chant! When I told my friend Nick this, when he picked me up for an amazing evening during the conference because he lives in the city where the conference was, he said, “what’s gregorian chant?” and I said “it’s medieval church music, basically,” and he said “oh, my friend studies that! He studies this guy Machaut,” and I said “yes, but this conference was about music that is FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OLDER THAN THAT” and he said “holy shit.”
When you go to a conference on gregorian chant even though you specialize in 19th century music and contemporary popular music, you will feel very out of your element. Let me explain. This is a piece of medieval music notation, basically, I think it’s Armenian and I have no idea what it’s from but this is what those early neumes look like:
The people at the conference can READ THAT, as much as anyone can (which to be fair is not very much).
Furthermore, when people specialize in gregorian chant, it also by necessity means they are essentially doctors of theology too, as the chant repertoire is inextricable from the practice of early Catholicism. So, for fun, on each day of the conference we went across the street to the chapel and practiced (? I don’t know what you call it when you’re a medieval monk) Lauds in the morning and Vespers in the evening, using the original plainchant-notated sources (although, to be fair, in modern font) from like the 10th century. This entails reading musical notation that has been dead for a thousand years; singing in Latin; and knowing all the necessary actions, like when you stand while singing, when you bow while singing, how the antiphonal stuff works, etc.
The theological aspect of the study of medieval music also means that the Q&A sessions after each paper often devolve into profoundly trippy philosophical theological discussions and debates so arcane (to me) as to become basically poetry, such as the following, which I wrote down verbatim after a paper about how the sung aspect of Catholicism allows a multiplicity into the supposedly dualistic Genesis myth:
Q: “Yes, I have just one quick question. Does the risen Christ have a body? And if yes, does that body exist outside of time?”
I took tons of notes and had a blast. Being at a conference outside your wheelhouse can be really liberating, but this repertoire is SO outside my wheelhouse that it was like going to Comic-Con or something, I was just staring around in amazement at all that I saw. It’s the sci-fi alternate reality of my discipline. Some of the papers were truly incomprehensible to me but a lot of them weren’t, and were really interesting. And my paper somehow went over well, even though it’s mostly just clips from “Star Wars,” so that was a plus.
I was there for three days, staying in a very awkward Air BnB situation. Are all Air BnB situations just by nature sort of awkward? You’re staying in a stranger’s home, it’s not like it’s fun, right? This seemed more awkward than usual. It was a tiny 2-bedroom family housing unit on the campus, and in this unit lived a young couple and their three small children (none of whom was mentioned in the Air BnB posting, I mean, I feel like you should mention that you have what amounts to a herd of toddlers, but maybe you get so beaten-down by parenthood you forget what normalcy is even like? For example, when I tried to take a shower there was all kinds of creepy baby laundry soaking in the bathtub and I had to kind of pick my way around it to wash my body quickly like in prison). I slept in a small private living room. I actually slept great, but during the day it was not very fun to be there, due to the constant unceasing din of childhood (so much screaming! One would stop and another would start, it was like being in a monkey torture lab, plus so much weird banging, dear god what is making all that banging), so I spent a lot of time walking around and working on my paper in coffee shops. Sometimes if I was in my little room two of the children would come stand in the doorway and whisper to each other about me in Hebrew, then go into the kitchen and loudly yell “but mama when is she LEAVING”
Everything worked out. They were what anyone would consider a beautiful and healthy young family, it wasn’t their fault a grouchy anti-procreation weirdo was renting their guest room. The main thing is being able to sleep at night, which I did to the max, so whatever.
My first night I got in kind of late, and was vaguely depressed in my spirit by the whole shebang–I don’t really enjoy traveling by myself, which I know makes me some kind of Philistine, but it’s just kind of emo to take an 8 hour train ride and then sit in a weird room in a stranger’s house on a college campus where there is only McDonald’s to eat–so I took the bull by the horns and went for a 2 hour walk. I ultimately walked like 6 miles, it was great, my leg totally held up. And at the end of my walk I went into a fancy Italian restaurant and ate a huge plate of pasta and a huge glass of wine by myself, amongst all the romantic dates going on around me. That felt pretty cool. Everyone felt sorry for me but little did they know I was having a great time, reading that sick New Yorker article about cooking all the French food.
I also got to see Nick and Julia, two geniuses of my acquaintance. They bought me sushi and tacos and we went to the beach. It was incredible. It really was the best sushi I’ve ever eaten. That whole day and the day before I’d eaten nothing but bread (see above re: McDonalds issue) and when Nick picked me up I could think only of vegetarian sushi, but no way was I going to be that asshole who, when asked what she feels like for dinner, responds “oh I don’t know…vegetarian sushi?” But then Nick said “DO YOU LIKE SUSHI” and I almost cried. Truly if those guys hadn’t wanted to hang out with me I would probably have cried at some point, for real. Instead I got treated like a king, with all the sushi I could eat, and then we went to a Twin Peaks-themed bar. The next night on the beach we laughed and laughed at a seagull running and yelling by itself, and drank white wine out of jars, and talked about silent meditation retreats. Then I got up at four a.m. and took a taxi to the train station and took a train back home, upon which (the train), an enormous, completely slack and placid man snored for seven STRAIGHT hours while everyone on the train gossiped about it with increasing desperation and frustrated rage. He woke up only long enough to eat two cheeseburgers, then went back to sleep. It was snoring like a joke, like the way the dwarf snores in “Snow White” when that feather’s going up and down in front of his face. Like how you’d snore as a joke at a slumber party. The nice old lady behind me, around hour six, suddenly said “Jesus CHRIST, this guy!!!” and we were all like, I know, hold it together lady, deep breaths. My seatmate took a long video of him.
I was thinking about how it was a metaphor for the first world
On the train I read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story in its entirety and was blown away. I feel like if you want to understand contemporary American culture all you need to do is read Infinite Jest, the Shteyngart novel, and David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism. That triumvirate tells you everything you need to know. The future is going to be horrible.
And now I am writing a syllabus. I went to a party last night where a film guy was complaining about having to teach “the entire history of film” in one semester and I was laughing and laughing because I’d just written a syllabus that went from 1,000 BC to J.S. Bach.