Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1998
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H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

A composing feline... life and manners inside the razor wire... reading between texts... farewell to a "New Edge" legend

Photo courtesy Morris Cotel
The little piece that Ketzel wrote
Hopkins Magazine ordinarily does not cover faculty pets. But bear with us for a moment while we tell a tale:

Morris Moshe Cotel, head of Peabody Conservatory's composition department, has a three-year-old, six-toed cat named Ketzel. Cotel likes to start each day by playing a Bach fugue. Ketzel likes to listen, usually sitting atop the piano, sometimes sitting inside it. About 14 months ago, Cotel was playing his daily fugue with Ketzel in attendance. Only this time, the cat did not remain in her usual perch but stepped cautiously onto the keyboard and slowly crept along it, as if, says Cotel, there were an invisible mouse in the bass.

Says Cotel, "I grabbed pencil and paper and started taking dictation from her in one of those little music notebooks that all conservatory students carry around. The whole episode lasted about 20 seconds. When she was done, I looked at the paper and noticed that this was really beautiful, what we call in music ternary, which means a-b-a form--these clusters of notes arranged themselves so that the piece had a beginning, a middle, and a return to the beginning. But I shrugged my shoulders and put it up on a pile of manuscripts on my piano and forgot about it.

"Now, fast-forward a number of months. I came across an announcement of a contest. The Paris New Music Review wanted to have a competition for pieces for piano of 60 seconds or less. And I thought, `What about that little piece that Ketzel wrote?' So I found it and sent it off." He made no pretense about the origins of the composition--he told the judges how the enclosed music had been composed by a cat.

Cotel forgot about it again until he returned to his New York residence last November and collected a week's worth of mail: "In this pile was a big white envelope. There was a certificate inside from the Paris New Music Review, a `certificate of special mention.'" Ketzel had been awarded a prize; the judges praised her for her "creative instinct and imagination."

"I was stunned," Cotel says. "First of all, the judges had a sense of humor. Second, they were clearly as taken by the beauty of this little miniature as I was. One of the judges said it reminded him of Anton Webern, that if Webern had had a cat, this is what Webern's cat would have written."

Ketzel's composition, "Piece for Piano, Four Paws," transcription by Morris Cotel, was scheduled to receive its world premiere late last month at Peabody in a concert of contemporary keyboard music by faculty members. "Peabody asked if the composer would be there," Cotel says. "I replied that Ketzel was a recluse who never left her apartment."

Paris New Music Review plans a concert of its contest winners next month in Amsterdam. "Piece for Piano, Four Paws" will be on the program. Is Cotel jealous of Ketzel's international acclaim? "No," he says. "I'm a student of Judaica. It says in the Talmud that there are two people whom man does not envy: his son and his student." --Dale Keiger

Forni (far left), with Jessup inmates
Photo by Louis Rosenstock
Civility behind bars
One does not routinely think of civility as something that obtains in prison. But Hopkins professors Giulia Sissa and Pier Massimo Forni, who are directing the yearlong Hopkins Civility Project, were curious about what sort of social rules and rituals govern life behind bars. So they initiated a series of discussions with inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup. During a recent open discussion with Hopkins faculty and students in the prison's activity room, the inmates talked about life and manners inside the razor wire.

The men (many of whom are serving life sentences) were unanimous that there is a code of conduct in prison. But they noted that it differs markedly from that of outside society. For example, should one Hopkins professor get in an argument with another, the mark of civility would be to walk away, disengaging before the argument escalates. That can be dangerous to do in prison, the inmates said.

Eddie (none of the prisoners used last names) explained, in a discussion of what would happen if someone stole a pair of your shoes, that a confrontation would be all but inevitable: "You can't escape the consequences of losing face in prison. If somebody does something to you, and you don't address it, then you've lost face and you're going to suffer from it for the rest of your term. There's nowhere to go. You're going to see that same guy at mealtime, in the weight room, in the yard, and it's not like you can call the police. If you don't do anything, you leave yourself wide open to get everything taken from you." -- DK

Gained in the translation
Professor of
German Rainer Nègele likes to illustrate the central intellectual concern of his new collection of essays by recounting a small joke. A German Jew named Katzmann moves to Paris, and wishes to conceal his Jewishness by adopting a French name. He decides on a literal translation into French of Katzmann: chat l'homme. The punch line is that when spoken, his new "non-Jewish" name is pronounced shalom.

Nègele uses the joke to demonstrate how when a text is translated from one language to another, more is created than simply a new version in a second language. A third thing emerges, something "between" texts, that Nègele argues can be read, as well. In the case of the joke, the third thing is a Hebrew homonym that, due to our historical and cultural context, gives the joke its poignant humor. Thanks to the mysterious workings of language, poor Katzmann ends up sounding more Jewish than ever.

These unexpected products of translation are the subject of the three essays comprising Nègele's new book, Echoes of Translation: Reading Between Texts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Says the author, "One of the premises of this book is that there's no such thing as a pure equivalent in a translation." A translation can never match the original word-forword with a precise transmission of meaning. Not from one language to another, nor from one historical and cultural context to another. There always will be what Nègele calls "ruptures." By studying these ruptures, he says, one gains cultural insights beyond what is contained merely in the translated words of the new text.

As an example, he cites his reading of a text by the 20th-century German literary critic Walter Benjamin. Nègele was comparing an English translation of the work to the original German when he came to a German word, unabsehbar, which he recognized as meaning, roughly, "You cannot foresee the end of it." The translator, however, had substituted the English word "invisible" (unsichtbar). "My first thought was, `This person does not know German,' but actually the translator knows German very well," says Nègele.

So what could have motivated the slip? He concluded that the translator was operating from a different metaphysical framework, in which the opposition of the visible and invisible constitutes the basic epistemological structure. But the translation called for a different concept, of a sort of always-limited visibility.

Nègele's central metaphor in his essays is the echo. An original sound travels through space, encounters resistance (a canyon wall, for example), and is heard again, but now in a new form. In Nègele's metaphor, an original text travels through space and time to a new place to be read again, but it too has been altered. It is a reflection of the original, yet is something new in and of itself. It is not so much a reconstruction of the original as a new construction of meaning arising from a sort of destruction of the original.

Echoes of Translation discusses Freud, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Sophocles, and the German poet Freidrich Hülderlin. "It is important to me how Freud reads a dream text," Nègele says. "He takes a dream. Usually there's a kind of story, made up by the dreamer as he or she tells the dream. Then Freud breaks that story up into the smallest possible meaningful segments, and each segment is entered into a chain of free associations. Through this refiguration of the broken elements, a completely different story emerges." Freud constructed a new meaning in his "translation" of the dream. Nègele believes that something similar happens when any text is translated.

"When I do a text in translation in class," he says, "I often find problematic translations more interesting for an understanding of the text than so-called precise ones. It's in those moments of problematic ruptures that something becomes readable in the original that was not readable before." -- DK

Photo by Kim Stringfellow
"New Edge" legend dies
Followers of contemporary acoustic guitar were saddened to learn of the recent death of Michael Hedges (Peabody '80). Hedges, 43, died in December in a single-car crash near Boonville, California. His auto apparently slid off a curve and down an embankment, where it was found days later by a road maintenance crew.

In 1984, Hedges's Aerial Boundaries was one of the recordings that attracted significant attention to a new record label, Windham Hill. The label soon became known for popularizing the contemplative, mostly instrumental music that has come to be called "New Age." Hedges disliked the term, at least in regard to his own compositions. He preferred "New Edge." He also wryly called his music, which had more bite than much of the soporific New Age material produced in the 1980s, "heavy mental" and "acoustic thrash."

The latter suggests how he played. Hedges regarded the guitar as not just a melodic but a percussive instrument. He plucked and strummed the strings like any other player, but also hammered the strings against the fretboard with the fingers of both hands, like a keyboard player. His skillful use of harmonics, exotic tunings, and these percussive effects made him a favorite of other guitarists, who went to his concerts to watch as much as to listen. He won Guitar Player magazine's annual reader poll as "best acoustic guitarist" five years in a row. --DK