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This video is a record of Imago, my photography installation at Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, MA.

Imago was on display between June 2011 and April 2012. When it was time to take the show down, I didn’t know if I’d ever see the 45 pieces together again, so I walked the halls with a video camera.  Here is that raw footage, along with my original soundtrack.

 

When I take a photograph — that’s to say, when I discover an image — I enter an altered state of awareness — it’s like getting stoned.  In the rough video here, I move the camera as if I’m returning to that place, trying to get back inside each image.

The music consists of three free improvisations that I recorded around the time I was taking the photographs in Imago. A free improvisation is a completely spontaneous act of music making, with no planning and no theory — for me it has been a way to find my voice.  In these clips I play guitars by German Vazquez-Rubio and Stephan Connor.

This video is 32 minutes.  The soundtrack has some ambient noise and some humming toward the end.  I’d like to produce a shorter version at some point, but here’s the raw material for those willing to look and listen.

From the show’s opening announcement:

Rudi has put together this collection of what he calls “found images” – candid photographs that explore the wonder of the ordinary world. He is interested in the way photography can inspire us to look closer at the things we pass by everyday – a bit of peeling paint or rusting metal, a feather on the sidewalk, or the shadow of a chain link fence. He explores “the random grace of light” – the way sunshine reveals the interest in whatever it happens to touch. Rudi’s closeup perspectives and attention to texture give viewers the sense they can almost reach out and feel the objects depicted – common things rendered strangely beautiful by an uncommon perspective. The photographs now on display in CIC are the record of a year’s worth of close observation in places ranging from Kendall Square to Mahabalipuram, India. Rudi works with digital equipment but avoids cropping or editing his images after capture – keeping them as close as possible to what he saw in the moment, and what you too might see with your own eyes if you stop and take notice.

The word imago can mean:

an image — as in “imago dei,” the image of God

the adult form of an insect after metamorphosis

the idealized mental image of a loved one

Most humans, at some point in their life, will face that notorious let’s-get-to-know-you question that begins:

If you could be any animal…

The person asking this question usually brings to it a certain investigative passion that cannot be diffused with a shrug: they really want to know.

Once you’ve coughed up the name of your beast, as if it were not disorienting enough to contemplate life as a different species, the questioner wants you to justify the choice.  Liking cats won’t do; you must defend your enthusiasm for catness with an analysis of its pros and cons and an explanation of why that condition is right for you.  Vagueness will leave you open to attack:

“Why a cat?”

“I guess they’re… independent, kind of like… me.”

“And how is that?”

It strikes me that a winning response to such animal-identity interrogation — a way to show a deep personal connection with your preferred species — would be to adopt its own style of vocalization:

“Why a cat?”

“Meow.”

The meow tactic — let’s call it that — presupposes that you, the human, are able to replicate an utterance of your ideal animal, and this depends on which animal it is.

When I was a kid, my prize possession was a collection of mail-order Safari Cards by Editions Recontre — a new bunch of cards arriving every two weeks — and my favorite card among them was this cuscus:

Cuscus Safari Card: Phalanger maculatus

I have no idea how the cuscus sounds, nor would most questioners recognize such sounds if I could produce them, so the meow tactic is inapplicable here.  Luckily, recent science offers insight into the feasibility of this tactic if one’s choice is an elephant or a gibbon.  How do these creatures vocalize and is it something a human — at least in principle — could mimic?

Let’s begin with elephants.  As it happens, my own animal preference began to shift from Phalanger maculatus to Elephas Maximus in my adult life, after I was blessed by this lady in India in 2011.  Her name is Lakshmi:

My Image of Lakshmi: Elephas Maximus

After meeting Lakshmi, I couldn’t articulate my reasons for wanting to be an elephant aside from saying I admired her majestic presence.  But when I learned that elephants can communicate over several miles through infrasounds — low frequency vibrations that actually travel through the ground — my argument was complete.  It’s called seismic communication and I can’t imagine any animal ability I’d rather have.

So how do elephants produce these infrasounds? Until recently no one knew whether the process was closer to feline purring or human speech.  (Be warned: I’m not a biologist or acoustician; what follows is my summary of dozens of popular articles on the topic.)  Cats purr through rhythmic twitching of their vocal folds.  This is called active muscular contraction (AMC) and it results from a constant neural signal to the larynx.  AMC allows cats to produce a low frequency with a very tiny larynx, and they’re are able to do it while inhaling and exhaling.

People speak and sing in a different way, by exhaling air across the larynx, which causes the vocal folds to vibrate — don’t try it on an inhale!  Our system is called the myoelastic-aeorodynamic method (MEAD) and it is driven by breath as opposed to the laryngeal musculature.  Turns out elephants rumble using this same breath-based mechanism, and if you had sufficiently long vocal cords (theirs are 8 times the length of ours) you might be able to say something to them through the earth.

Is there any hope for a human to actually dip into the elephantine range? Apparently, U.S. singer Tim Storms can produce sounds as low as .189 Hz. And if you’re not Tim Storms?  Since these infrasounds are inaudible to humans (Mr. Storms included) you could always bluff:

“”

“Let me ask again, why do you want to be an elephant?”

“You didn’t hear me? I just explained it.

As for gibbons, it was already understood that they don’t purr with AMC, they sing with MEAD.  The recent scientific question was whether their singing employs the source-filter distinction.  When a human sings, the larynx or source vibrates at fundamental frequency and also produces a range of harmonics above it (think of these as components of a complex sound).  The upper vocal tract, including the tongue, lips, and teeth, serves as a filter that determines which harmonics are projected, and in turn whether the listener hears an a or an e and what nuances it has.  Trained singers can get a louder sound by shaping the filter so that its resonant frequency is aligned with the fundamental frequency from the source.  This process of resonance tuning requires a level of control over the upper vocal tract that was not known to exist in primates.  When an experiment with helium confirmed that gibbons also have this control, the popular science headlines read: GIBBONS SING LIKE OPERATIC SOPRANOS!

I like to imagine a bunch of gibbons at a party and one brings up the if-you-could-be-any-animal question:

“So, why do you want to be a human?”

“Well, can’t you see me… on stage… as Gilda in Rigoletto?”

I wonder how this gibbon duet would go over at the Metropolitan Opera:

Grammar Girl debunks the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence in a preposition, but she’s not always cool with it:

When you could leave off the preposition and it wouldn’t change the meaning, you should leave it off.

She dislikes:

Where are you at?

She much prefers:

Where are you?

Hey, I’d like to stand up for “Where are you at?” As I see it, the trailing “at” doesn’t affect the denotation of the sentence, but it does affect the connotation, so it’s not truly extraneous.

Of course, “Where are you at?” is not idiomatic to formal writing, so don’t use it there. But what about casual writing or speech? In the right context, the slightly wordier phrase offers a shade of meaning that’s not so easy to coax out of the shorter one.  Notice that there are only three places the stress can land in “Where are you?” and each implies a different sentiment. These interpretations are subjective, of course, but here’s what I hear:

Where are you? (Anxiety or concern.) How did you get lost?

Where are you? (Impatience or loneliness.) I’ve been waiting for so long.

Where are you? (Disapproval or disappointment.)  Everyone else is here already.

Adding a preposition at the end gives us a new place to put the stress:

Where are you at? (Casual curiosity.) I’ll meet you there, wherever.

It sounds a bit slangy, and that’s good if a casual attitude is what you want to convey.

Like succinctness? Then why not say “Where are you at?”, setting the right tone in four words, and avoiding disaster:

“Where are you? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been waiting too too long, I’m just asking so I know where to meet you, looking forward to it, you know.”

“So you’re pissed?”

“No, not at all, sweety. Oh, I wish I had said ‘Where are you at?'”

See also: Omit Needless Words?

Although it has come under recent criticism from linguists like Geoffrey Pullum, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is often cited as the classic text on writing English prose. One of the most famous imperatives from the book is:

Omit needless words.

If that’s a bit too sparse for your ears, please pull up a chair and luxuriate in this extended description of the principle:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Here is the image that best captures my response to the above:

Yes, I’ve come to believe that “Omit needless words” is in fact a recipe for needless suffering and confusion.

The principle sounds perfect, and that’s how it lures us.  If a word is unnecessary, then by the very definition of unnecessary, we can strike it out with no adverse effect, so let’s!  Who but a fool would decide against economy and simplicity in writing?

The problem is that it’s hard to judge whether a word is truly needless. Sentences are complex beasts and so are the minds we use to interpret them. The logic that beckons us to remove a word is often based on an incomplete understanding of how words interact. As we will see, words that appear like dead weight can contribute in very significant ways to the meaning and impact of a sentence. Keep cutting out the “unnecessary” words and you might be left, not with a glistening core of meaning, but with a skeleton that doesn’t express it.

Let’s look at the examples Strunk & White use to illustrate their maxim.  They tell us the phrase “he is a man who” should always be compressed to “he.”  So let’s consider a simple sentence that perpetrates the excess in question:

He is a man who steals.

If we are to omit needless words, we should rewrite this as:

He steals.

At first glance, it looks like we scored. The first word tells us the sentence refers to a man, so “is a man who” can be axed. The meaning stays the same and we’ve reduced our word count.

Here’s where I raise my hand as a pesky student.  Herr Professor, uh, don’t those sentences have different connotations?

To my ears, “He steals” is a neutral statement. It informs us about the man’s actions without implying a judgement about his character.  This guy could be Robin Hood for all we know.

But “He is a man who steals” puts us in the mood for judgement. The apparently needless verbiage “is a man who” is actually critical: it invites us to think about what kind of man this is.  The idea that men belong to different categories is invoked here, but not in the shorter phrase.  If our subject is the kind of man who steals, he’s probably not a good man — safe to assume?

Let’s take another example:

His story is a strange one.

Strunk & White prefer:

His story is strange.

Again, it seems virtuous to remove the excess, but in doing so, we change the connotation.

“His story is strange” suggests that what happened to the man is strange.

“His story is a strange one” suggests that these events make a strange kind of story.

It is like the difference between getting run over by a hovercraft (case 1) and waking up to find you’ve become a cockroach (case 2). Anyone could get run over by a hovercraft: unlikely, but possible. And yet to wake up as a cockroach would be positively Kafkaesque!

Now let’s take an example that illustrates “Omit needless words” together with “Put statements in positive form.”  Strunk & White tell us to replace:

the fact that he had not succeeded

with

his failure

Indeed, we are supposed to excise “the fact that” wherever it occurs. But wait a minute, are those phrases equivalent? What if the guy in the sentence isn’t ready to give up? It would then be plausible to say:

The fact that he had not succeeded didn’t convince him of his failure.

Of course we could shorten this to:

His failure didn’t convince him of his failure.

But the latter suggests a kind of comical obstinacy, whereas the former suggests a courageous refusal to accept defeat.

So far, we’ve seen how “needless” words can change the rhetorical impact of a sentence by steering us down a different path of interpretation (for example, encouraging us to think about a category — a kind of man or story — instead of a specific instance).  Another way “needless” words can affect the rhetorical impact of a sentence is by altering its rhythm. Words that seem needless might actually perform the vital role of keeping the beat. As they say, “Prose ain’t poetry,” and yet the experience of reading prose is shaped by the same metrical factors that poets obsess about.

Here are two rewrites that Strunk & White propose, based on the idea that “who is” and “which was” are superfluous:

His brother, who is a member of the same firm

His brother, a member of the same firm

Trafalgar, which was Nelson’s last battle

Trafalgar, Nelson’s last battle

What is the result of cutting those words? When I read the sentences out loud, I find the wordier versions are easier on the tongue. Why? Because “who is” and “which was” function here like pick-up notes in music, preparing us for an accented beat that follows. Take them out, and you bring the stressed words closer together. As a reader, I tend to compensate by leaving a longer pause after the comma, so that the stresses will be better separated, but such a pause can disrupt one’s flow.

So what we are actually trying to optimize when we cut “needless” words? If we must pay per word, as in print publication where ink and paper are expensive, there’s an economic incentive. But people often assume that reducing word count is more than a way to save money, it’s also a way to save the reader’s time. Fewer words makes for quicker reading. Fallacy.

When I read

His brother, who is a member of the same firm

the words “who is a” roll out quickly and almost bleed into the stressed word “member.”  But when I read

His brother, a member of the same firm

the pause I’m inclined to take after the comma is a bit longer than the time it would take me to say “who is.”  Without the pickup, the rhythmic similarity between “brother” and “member” comes to the foreground and sounds a bit clunky.

In this case, cutting those filler words makes for slightly slower reading.

Reader, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought which might save you from descending into Munchian anguish the next time you sit down to edit your prose, earnestly omitting needless words as The Elements implore, and then wondering what went wrong.  Words that seem like slackers might actually be your most helpful friends; omitting them is often needless.

In a decade of living in Boston’s South End, I never needed to get a VCR repaired, but it was comforting to know if such situation should arise, there was a place I could go: Hite Radio and TV at 1672 Washington Street.  Every time I passed the place, I would admire their vintage sign and fantasize that someday, I’d find myself in a 20th century electronics emergency — perhaps I’d be driven to the edge of sanity by noise from a failing radio, or maybe a friend would get their finger stuck in a voracious cassette deck — and then, in the chaos and confusion, just before it was too late, I’d think “Hite!” and we’d rush to safety there.

Here is the sign in all its glory (credit to David Salafia):

Hite

On a recent trip back to the neighborhood I found the sign had been taken down and was resting against the back of the Hite building:

 

It was time to say goodbye to a neighborhood icon, and to the mental comic strip I had created around it.

Me (wistfully): “Turns out I won’t be getting a VCR repaired at Hite.”

Me (impatiently): “Don’t have a VCR so what’s the problem?”

I turned my eye to another Washington Street icon, a cluster of payphones that stood outside Hite since well before I’d been in the neighborhood.  I spent quite a while photographing the payphones together, and then just one of them, gradually finding a more specific subject in the reflection the yellow receiver made against the shining silver keypad.  Out of roughly a hundred shots I chose the one below to include in my portfolio.

Just today I learned the entire site, including the payphones, has been demolished.  An article in SouthEndPatch quotes the developer of the new property as having said “I cannot wait to get rid of those telephone booths.”

Payphone (by Rudi Seitz)

In February 2009, I had the privilege of meeting Vladimir Matorin. When I first encountered the man I did not know that he is one of the greatest bass singers in Russia. At first, I knew him only as an interloper in my apartment building in Boston’s South End. In returning home on several occasions, I had noticed a towering bearded fellow, with a distinctly severe countenance, pacing the hallway near my door, and I wondered what he was doing there. He seemed slightly disheveled and somewhat disgruntled. My imagination jumped between possibilities: I did not know whether he might be a philosopher disturbed by some conflict of ideas, an artist torn by decisions to be made about his creative work, or perhaps a villain tormented by some plot gone wrong. In any case, his air of unrest seemed larger than life.

A few days after I noticed this wandering stranger, I got a call from my neighbor Linda, who worked for Opera Boston at the time. She asked me if I’d lend my digital piano to some musicians who were staying in the building. “Sure,” I said, and together we carried my keyboard a few doors over to another apartment. We get inside, and there’s the guy — the same towering figure I had seen in the hallway, then grim, now relaxed and smiling.  Linda introduced him as Vladimir; and his wife, diminutive and genial, as Svetlana. The Matorins, it turned out, were visiting from Moscow so that Vladimir could perform in an upcoming production of The Nose by Dmitri Shostakovich, an opera based on a Gogol story. Linda had arranged for them to live in another neighbor’s vacant unit for a few weeks.

As soon as we got the piano set up, Svetlana thrust her hands toward it and began to play. Now equipped for practice, the Matorins smiled and made gestures of gratitude — first towards Linda, who then pointed to me as the donor of the piano. As the Matorins thanked me in broken English, I miscalculated in assuming I should show them how to adjust the digital tone of the piano, so I put it on the harpsichord setting. Quite fiercely they objected to the new sound:

“NO! NO! Very bad! Only grrrrand piana! Only grrrrrand piana!”

When I set the tone back to Grand Piano they smiled again and all was well. I left feeling glad that my keyboard, which had been idle for years, would be getting some use, but I still did not know much about the musicians who would be using it. So, I searched for more information about the Matorins, and learned about Vladimir’s illustrious career: he is soloist at the Bolshoi Theater, holds the title of National Artist of Russia, and has received a special approval from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church to sing liturgical works. He is in all senses, the real deal.

When Svetlana invited me, a few days later, to join them in the apartment for dinner, I understood it was a very special opportunity. Svetlana served dish after dish, three or four wonderful salads (all with generous helpings of mayonnaise), a soup with Champignon mushrooms, and then an improvised delicacy combining salmon and eggplant. “Rud-di! Rud-di! You must eat more, more!” said Svetlana repeatedly. I looked at Vladimir and somewhat impulsively declared that I would eat more indeed, so I could become like him. It could have gone wrong, but my quip was well received. Throughout the evening Linda had been “translating” for me; that is, taking what I said and repeating it a little more slowly, still in English, to Svetlana, who didn’t speak much English. And so Linda passed it on to Svetlana, pantomiming as she spoke: “Rudi likes the food. He’d like to eat more and become like Vladimir.” There was laughter all around. “Rud-di! Rud-di! You must eat more, more, more! Like Vladimir!” Amidst the joking I also conveyed that I was looking forward to hearing Vladimir perform in The Nose (I’d secured tickets by this time), that I’m an opera lover, and that I enjoy listening to Russian sacred music.

When Svetlana heard the latter, she promptly brought out a DVD of a concert Vladimir had performed near Moscow, attended by the Holy Patriarch. Before I knew it I was sitting on a couch, beside Vladimir himself, watching this performance. On the old TV screen, there was Vladimir as the star soloist, backed by a large choir. The music began, and Vladimir’s powerful voice filled the hall, and the living room where we sat, seeming to transcend the capacity of the TV speaker, which I’m sure had never been asked to do such work before. As the piece progressed, Vladimir seemed to explore lower and lower depths of the bass register, his expression became more intense, his gaze more severe; his mouth opened wider, then wider again, and at one point there was so much energy collected in his subterranean roar that I felt something, somewhere must explode.

As the recorded Vladimir continued to render this musical liturgy, the live Vladimir, sitting beside me on the couch, admired what he heard, leaning back, crossing his arms, nodding, and saying in a low, low voice, “Ah, Matorin… Hmmm… Ahhhh!…. MATORIN…. MAAAA TOOO RINNNN!” I was so swept up in the music and the moment that I thought the same to myself (in a smaller voice), “Matorin! Matorin!”

Vladimir was kind enough to give me a CD. I can find no references to this recording online — unfortunate since this music really should be available for a wider audience — but here is the cover:

I don’t think Matorin is well represented in the few clips that are available right now on YouTube, but here is one that shows him singing liturgical music. The music starts at 1:50.

There is also an mp3 clip available from Ovation Management.

Opera Boston’s performance of The Nose was sensational, and I could go on about what a shame it is that this wonderful company is now defunct. Vladimir played the barber Ivan Yakovlevitch, who comes under suspicion for a very strange crime. Here is a synopsis of the opening scene (credits to the Met):

Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov gets a shave in Yakovlevich’s barbershop. The following morning, Yakovlevich, to his horror, finds a human nose in a freshly baked loaf of bread. Furious, his wife accuses him of having cut off the nose of one of his customers and orders him to dispose of it. Yakovlevich tries to get rid of the nose in the street but keeps running into acquaintances and becomes increasingly confused. When he finally manages to throw the nose into the Neva River, a police officer sees him and takes him in for questioning.

When I heard Vladimir perform on stage I thought back to the first few times I had seen him in the hallway, before I knew his identity. I wondered whether that troubled quality I had noticed in his countenance could have been a reflection of the character Yakovlevich he was then preparing to play. As he paced the hallway outside my door, had he been inhabiting Yakovlevich, perhaps feeling the confusion and torment of a man just accused of nasal thievery? And what did it say about me for feeling suspicion when I first noticed him there in the hallway — seeing him, if only for that fleeting moment before one can gain conscious control of the fear of the unfamiliar, and the stereotypical judgments such fear compels… seeing him for that split-second as an intruder, perhaps a thief?

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