Monday, February 25, 2008


This Thursday, I will be performing in the world premiere of William Bolcum's Eighth Symphony, a work commissioned for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is a contemporary setting of selections of William Blake's Prophetic Books (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Jerusalem and America: A Prophecy). What does this have to do with "unctuous". In Part 1, "Rintrah roars", the tenors sing the line: Now the sneaking serpent walks in mild humility. The marking for that is "unctuous". I don't pretend to be a Blake scholar, nor do I really grasp a tenth of all the symbolism in these selections, but I do find this particular marking to be a riot. So, on that note (pun intended), I bring you: unctuous.

Unctuous derives from the Latin "unctus" for the act of anointing or smearing. It is related to "unguent", the thing that is smeared. And since this word developed c. 1350, its etymology is not so disjointed. From the oily or soapy feeling of the unguent, to having similar characteristics of a unguent generally (greasy or oily), to general characteristics which may be construed as slippery, and from there is just an easy leap to smug or suave, as a form of a slippery attitude.

Oatmeal soap is less unctuous owing to to the rougher texture of whole oats in the bar. Ok, but I don't think we commonly use unctuous to describe things that are actually slippery. Oil unlike ice is unctuous. Ice can't be unctuous since it isn't viscous, nor does it feel slippery until you are slipping. Oil is always slippery. And, sorry for the graphic reference, so is mucus. More often, now, unctuous is used negatively to describe people. Car salesmen have a reputation for being unctuous. Plaintiff's counsel's unctuous courtroom demeanor detracted from his credibility. Too easy. So, let's go back to the Blake excerpt. I think the serpent is a direct reference to the serpent from the Garden of Eden, and that this character would be "walking in mild humility", belies a certain slick character to try to seduce the listener. Whether the tenors can pull that off, I let you know after Thursday.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mnemonic; metronomic

In honor of the newest additions to my household, Mnemosyne and Metis, two adorable kittens that I rescued from a local shelter last week, I offer mnemonic and metronomic.

Mnemonic derives from the Greek "mnemon" for "of or relating to memory" and the adjectival suffix "ikos". By mid 1700s it emerged in its current form, so having successful made it through the Dark Ages, it still retains it original etymological meaning as a noun for "of or relating to memory" and as an adjective, for "something assisting in memory".

For those familiar with ABC's Schoolhouse Rock, mnemonic is easy to use. A catchy short song is an excellent mnemonic for learning odd lyrics about parts of speech and the evolution of a bill into law--and commercial ads! Accordingly, music is the mnemonic device of the previous example. It should come as no surprise, then, that Mnemosyne, the Titaness of memory, is the mother of the muses, and that music is one of the great mnemonics. And mnemonic is not just something that you remember or can remember, like a scene of graphic violence or nudity in a movie, but something that is intended to help you remember something. Every Good Boy Does Fine was a mnemonic sentence I was taught to remember the keys of the lines on treble clef. FACE was the equivalent mnemonic for the spaces on the treble clef. Fortunately, I don't need those anymore... Lists are an obvious mnemonic for all kinds of things, but aren't nearly as much fun as something set to music or with a cute rhyme.

Now metronomic comes from the Greek "metron", a combinative form of the pre-Indo-European "me" for "measure" and "nomos" for "rule or law". This is the same "me" which is the root of Metis, the goddess of wisdom, skill and cleverness, and mother of Athena, who took on those characteristics subsequently. It isn't quite a stretch that the "measure" of a person would also be these characteristics. So, metronomic, then, is the adjective of metronome, a mechanical (or electrical) instrument which clacks out a measured tempo (Italian for time), and therefore, having such a audible measured tempo as if my such mechanical (or electrical) instrument. Being a musician, I have a variety of metronomes, although I still prefer my original Seth Thomas from when I was 5. My electrical one once scared me in an airport when it got accidentally switched on and did sound quite a bit like a ticking bomb.

Although I practice certain passages with a metronome, my objective is to make my performance of the piece convey the meter without sounding rigid and metronomic. Bored pencil tapping can have inadvertent metronomic qualities. So can certain alarm clocks and kitten mewing, which may or may not occur at the same time. It does, however, come down to a simple fact that the metronome is an audible mechanism, even though my electronic one has a flashing light only option. [Ed note: this is not as useful as the clacking sound to force you to pay attention to the beat.] And a metronome is supposed to measure a rate of time, not time itself. Therefore, metronomic should be audibly and consistently repetitive. After a long family drive, "This Old Man" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" become so metronomic, it gave both parents (metronomic?) headaches. Tiresome and tedious also work just as well, but the idea is that the song became monotonous and overly accented to just those repetitive beats. The metronomic opening statement by Plaintiff's counsel nearly put the jury to sleep. Ok. That's accurate, if a little opaque on the meaning. But most people know what a metronome is, so that makes it easy to get from context that it wasn't the content of the speech, but the manner of delivery. Think incessantly droning but with a clipped tendency as from the pendulum suddenly swinging in the opposite direction.

Well, neither of the kittens is particularly metronomic, even if they do wake me at 5:00am, and neither are they prone to mnemonics, or even really quite remembering from their mistakes as they are only just 3 months old. But they are exhibiting some of the qualities of their namesakes, and that's good enough for me! Welcome to my home. I'll work on your vocabulary later... :-)