Saturday, April 30, 2011

Entry 49 4.25.11

Entry 49, April 25th, 2011, 4:35pm (ship time GMT -4)

Course: ENE, Speed: 18 knots

Wind from the NE, Light Swell from the NE

It is our first sea day of the crossing today, and the band's last day off for a while. We stop in Curacao tomorrow, although there is a boat drill and a rehearsal so I don't know if I will have a chance to get ashore or not. Today is hot, humid, and hazy, even with a steady light wind. My hands are sticking to the table.

I've been reading the past several days. I finished “A Million Miles in Sail,” which only got more interesting as it went on. The author spent his last few years as a captain sailing clipper ships with precious cargoes for Britain during the first world war (the Great War, as it is called in his manuscript) and at various points outran a German cruiser (by changing course in the middle of the night) and evaded several German submarines. He also proved to be a surprisingly adept student of meteorology, using his knowledge of global wind patterns to beat a Polish cadet ship from Australia to Britain in a 97 day voyage (they were running light, had 80 crew to his 27, and had a three day head start). An interesting book, and an interesting character.

He also met a Cunard line Commodore who at one point (early in the war) commanded the Lusitania in outrunning a German cruiser lying in wait for her off of New York City. I'm glad the Grandeur will not be called upon to do that any time soon – the Lusitania was actually commissioned as an auxiliary cruiser for the British navy (with all of the propulsion machinery to match) while we are something more like a diesel-powered booze barge (yesterday we took on several pallets of beer kegs, and thirteen full pallets of wine (our best strategy with a German cruiser would probably involve getting them too drunk to pursue us)). The crossing itinerary calls for an average speed of greater than twenty knots . . . no word yet as to if that involves the orchestra sweating on bicycles in the engine room.

I've also been reading about Humphrey Davies again, the legendary chemist. His life really disproves any idea that art and science are somehow opposed to one another . . . at this point in the story he has just fallen in love with Jane Apreece, a scathingly witty and vivacious Scottish widow. The poetry produced by this infatuation is not your typical mushy tripe – it is replete with conceptually rigorous scientific metaphor and beautiful pastoral imagery, somehow wound together into deeply tender and personal looks into Davies' own emotional state. I'll reproduce here, not verse, but a bit of prose from a letter he wrote Jane in 1811 from Dublin:

. . . I call up the green woods and the gleams of sunshine darting through them, and the upland meadows when we took our long walk. I seem to hear, as then, the delightful sound of the nightingale interrupted by the more delightful sound of your voice. You will perhaps laugh at this visionary mood, and call it romance; but without such feelings life would be of little worth . . . Without this, its tones are like those of the Aeolian harp, broken, wild, and uncertain, fickle as the wind that produced them, beginning without order, ending without effect . . . To see you is the strongest wish of my heart.”

Davies had been a close friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (although his increasingly meteoric rise to fame was beginning to strain their relationship), and when he had decided to pursue science as a young man several had mourned the “loss of a potentially great poet.” Much of the imagery in his writing to Jane is similar in construction to the writings of Coleridge.

Jane does agree to marry him, but I am not totally convinced that it is going to end well. We'll have to see – I'll keep reading.

Also introduced today was a young assistant named Michael Faraday – the same Faraday, of course, who was later responsible for the Faraday cage, the device that makes modern electronics possible by protecting them from stray static charges (indeed, there is one at work in my computer as I type, and another at work in yours as you read!). Faraday, though, is still the young rookie at this point – quiet, awkward, struggling with French and Italian, and fresh from his job as a bookbinder. He was hired as a laboratory assistant primarily for being able to remain sober on the job, and presented as his part of his application a collection of his notes on Davies' lectures, written in his own hand and bound at the shop where he worked.

I see in Faraday a potential model for success in the professional world. He was originally introduced to chemistry through a book: “Conversations in Chemistry, mainly intended for young females,” typical of the sort of scientific literature for the masses that was becoming popular at the time. Inspired by this, he traveled to London in 1812 and scrounged up tickets to Davies' lectures, taking the meticulous notes that he later provided to Davies as proof of his dedication. He got the job as Davies' assistant, probably at least in part because of this familiarity with his hero's work, and therefore got his foot into the door of the establishment that interested him.

Faraday's first job paid only a pittance. He was given a room in the attic and one square meal a day as part of the arrangement. It was not glamorous, but it was vitally important in that it allowed him to live at the very cutting edge of chemistry. I see a similarity in Charlie Parker's first trip to New York City – he got a job washing dishes at the club where Art Tatum played every night just to be near the music. Miles Davis did something similar; he moved to New York ostensibly to study at Julliard, but his real goal was to track down Charlie Parker and play with him. Eventually Parker hired him when Dizzy left, and Miles had the foothold he needed at the sharp edge of musical experimentation.

My problem is that all of the musicians that I want to do that with are dead. If Art Blakey was still alive, working in his band would be my goal, but he isn't and the music has moved on. I don't live in 1955; I live in 2011. I want to be a part of my generation's great musical work, but I don't know what that work is.

Studying the history of the music is vitally important, of course, both technically and artistically – Davies (and Faraday, I assume) were well-versed in the history of science that came before them (In his “Chemical Philosophy,” Davies wrote a brilliant introduction that summarizes the extent of chemical research from the beginning of recorded history through the current day). As Diego says, “there's no need to reinvent the wheel,” when it comes to playing music. I feel like a Faraday who has not yet heard of Davies (perhaps this is a little presumptuous to compare myself to one of the greatest minds of British science!) – interested, yes, but not consumed with the obsessive fire that led him to Davies' lab.

Another consideration – perhaps Faraday cultivated this readiness for intense intellectual endeavor before ever reading that primer on chemistry. Maybe he practiced his own brilliance so intensely that chemistry just happened to be in the right place at the right time when he caught flame (the analogy of combustion seems particularly appropriate for a chemist). Perhaps I cannot rely on a visionary to catch my eye, but instead must develop my own drive and mental abilities to a crucial point where the first thing to cross my path will appear to be suddenly worth my life's effort.

I suspect that this is the truth. In that case, all I can do is continue to devour knowledge as voraciously as possible and develop my skills as best as I know how. On that note, I'm off to finish a Clifford Brown transcription on “Donna Lee.” Only half a chorus left!

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