Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

What are we really wishing our fellow men when we send them 'best wishes for Christmas'? Health, enjoyment of each other's company, thriving children, success - all these things too, of course. We may even - why not? - be wishing them a good appetite for the holiday meal. But the real thing we are wishing is the 'success' of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth.
Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On extraordinary coincidences

Regular readers will recall my admiration for the Canadian philosopher George Grant, a remarkable thinker who is too little known. His thought is difficult to pigeonhole, stemming from a deep engagement with Plato, with Friedrich Nietzsche, and with the Christian theological tradition. I find his analysis of modernity and the significance of technology to be profound and convincing, and I am particularly struck by his distinctive voice: his writing is erudite, with a certain rolling, magisterial character, but at the same time one gets the sense of an distinct personality, one that is humble, inquisitive and perhaps slightly naïve. He can say much in few words; I wish I could write as well.

The Grant canon is not large: there are three books based on public lecture series (Philosophy in the Mass Age, Time as History, and English-Speaking Justice), two essay collections (Technology and Justice and Technology and Empire), as well as the famous Lament for a Nation - a ninety-page, game-changing analysis of Canada's relationship to the United States, and the future of Canadian sovereignty. Those new to Grant will probably want to read the famous Lament first, which is fine, but the book would probably make more sense having previously read Philosophy in the Mass Age, which lays the groundwork for Grant's basic philosophical approach. None of the books are longer than two hundred pages, so you can test the waters without making a substantial time commitment.

The missing piece of Grantiana, though, and one I keep an eye out for in used bookstores, is George Grant in Process, a 1978 collection of essays on Grant's work, interspersed with interviews and brief pieces by Grant himself. Having no luck finding it, I finally bought a used copy from Amazon, only to open the book and find on the inside cover the label "Ex Libris Malcolm Muggeridge".

A dedication on the title page identifies it as a gift to Muggeridge and his wife from their son John, and pencil markings elsewhere state that the book was purchased in a 1991 estate sale following the sale of the Muggeridge home. I can hardly imagine how the book found its way into the catalogue of an Amazon used bookseller twenty years later, but I'm delighted to have found it.

This raises interesting questions: was Muggeridge an admirer of George Grant? (One would hardly buy one's parents a book of essays about a Canadian philosophy professor unless they had some previous interest in his work.) It is certainly within the realm of possibility that the two could have read each other, and perhaps even corresponded (the two men died within a couple of years of each other). Published biographies of both writers exist, and a volume of Grant's letters is available from University of Toronto Press - it would be interesting to follow up on this connection.

In the meantime, I will be looking for a book to read by Muggeridge, a writer I have heard about but rarely actually read.

Muggeridge's copy of George Grant in Process joins my extensive collection of Books Previously Owned by Interesting People (the sole previous member being a copy of Music Ho! from the library of Clifford von Kuster).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On better spamming technique

So I was about to empty my spam folder this evening when I noticed that one of my messages had a particularly tantalizing beginning:
The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, in his 1913 book The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations, emphasized the life of "flesh and bone" as opposed to that of abstract rationalism.
I was intrigued enough to open it, and read the thrilling denouement:
Some of the earliest involve the binary star 70Ophiuchi.
"narrowly optic," I don't know who you are or why you're targeting philosophy enthusiasts with your bizarre and incoherent messages, but I salute you.

The accompanying messages, such at the charming missive from a Ms. Kimberlie Latoyia, entitled ".Buy Genuine Phentermin at Low Cost. 60 pills at only $219.00 9kt5", were discarded unopened.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ecumenical oddities

The last time I wrote here was to discuss a book by a famous mid-century Anglo-Catholic liturgiologist. And, behold, I've now finished another book by a famous Anglo-Catholic liturgiologist - Andrew Burnham, the current bishop of Ebbsfleet. I had serious reservations about Percy Dearmer's Man and His Maker, and although Burnham's book is in many ways very good, I found that much of its potential was wasted.

(This post could just about end there, couldn't it? But, perhaps unwisely, I continue.)

Burnham's book, published in March of this year, is entitled Heaven and Earth in Little Space: The Re-Enchantment of Liturgy. Burnham believes that the Western church has suffered from a lack of meaningful liturgy and ceremonial in the modern era: liturgical action has been simplified, music is frequently of poor quality and is rarely meaningfully integrated into the liturgy; ascetic practices such as fasting and abstinence have declined; and the corporate prayer of the church (that is, the Divine Office) is not widely used either by individuals or in public worship. Many clergy advocate liturgical minimalism on the grounds that it makes it easier for people to participate meaningfully in the faith, but Burnham isn't so sure: "A principle might be ventured that if less and less is asked of those who practice the faith, fewer and fewer people will practice it, and the faith that they practice will also gradually diminish." Burnham takes up this issue on six chapters, each attacking the liturgical problem from a different front. His goal is to avoid ideological rigidity and antiquarianism; the liturgical forms of the Church have always varied, and pastoral considerations make a single solution impossible. Instead, Burnham tries to reconcile the competing positions in the debate, offering sober suggestions on how to make the best of the current liturgical materials available, and how better materials might be developed.

All of this seems perfectly reasonable when you put it that way, but Burnham can't decide whether he's writing for an Anglican or a Roman Catholic audience, and ends up with a book that is of limited interest to either.

The problem, of course, is Burnham's unusual ecclesiastical position: as one of England's so-called "flying bishops," his charge is to minister to traditional Anglo-Catholic parishes who have requested "extended episcopal oversight" as a result of theological disagreements with their local diocese, primarily surrounding the ordination of women. In recent years, Burnham seems to have become increasingly disillusioned with Anglicanism, announcing in 2008 that he intends to seek union with the Roman Catholic Church for himself and the congregations under his oversight. The manuscript of the book was finished, in fact, just after the release of an apostolic constitution by the current Pope, allowing for the creation of a separately governed Anglican "province" within Roman Catholicism.

What all of this means is that Burnham has a foot in both camps, and so he tries to treat both Anglican and Roman liturgical issues in the same volume. Because Roman liturgy raises much more complicated issues than Anglican liturgy, about two-thirds of any given chapter is dedicated to problems specific to Catholicism. As a church musician, this was at least interesting to read (it's my business to know how Catholic liturgy works, particularly in its preconciliar form), but only the remaining third of the text is at all relevant to my current situation. Even that figure may be too high, as most of his examples are drawn from current Church of England liturgical books and don't apply in North America.

So this book ought to be a hot seller with Roman Catholics, right? Somehow, I don't think so. The book market is glutted with volumes on the Roman liturgy, particularly since Benedict XVI's motu proprio of 2007. In my experience, Catholics are at best guardedly friendly toward the Anglo-Catholic movement - the music director at your local Catholic parish will be, at best, wryly amused to find out that an Anglican bishop has a list of suggestions for which Mass setting he ought to be using. Despite the endorsement of Dominican scholar Aidan Nichols, who wrote the foreword, I don't see this book having a great impact on the Catholic liturgical scene.

No, the ideal reader of this book would have to be someone much like Burnham himself - a British Anglo-Catholic of ultramontane tendencies who is considering joining the Church of Rome. And this is too bad, because Burnham's general comments on particular issues, particularly the problems of church music, are very fine. A small parish could easily implement some of his suggestions on how to offer a meaningful music program on a shoestring budget, with limited manpower. There are only a few mistakes (the word "Benedictus" is consistently, and oddly, misspelled, and the sequence "Veni Sancte Spiritus" is conflated with the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus".)

Overall, then, Burnham's book is worth reading, even if its constant denominational shifting makes it frustrating to read. The true disappointment, though, is the wasted potential: had this addressed Anglican issues only, in a more comprehensive way, this could have been a basic desk reference work. As it is, its interest is more limited.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On disappointment

Percy Dearmer! The mere mention of the name quickens the pulse and fills the heart with joy. His Parson's Handbook and Everyman's History of the Prayer Book, both lamentably out of print, are hot tickets on the Anglican used-book market; the former is a liturgiological classic, setting out a standard of churchmanship based on pre-Reformation English models, while the latter is still the best general treatment of the Book of Common Prayer. His work on the English Hymnal (with Ralph Vaughan Williams) set a standard that has yet to be surpassed: the treacly sentimentality and spineless chromaticism of the Victorian period were swept away, replaced by texts of real doctrinal substance (some translated by Dearmer himself) and tunes of real musical merit. The intellectual foundation for the Catholic movement in the Anglican Church was largely laid by other men (including John Keble, Edward Pusey, John Henry Newman, and Eric Mascall), but it was Dearmer who found a way to reconcile Anglo-Catholic ideas with native English traditions, ensuring that the movement had lasting power. If a catholic understanding of the Christian faith had been seen as incompatible with the prose of Thomas Cranmer, the hymns of Watts and Wesley, and the rest of the English heritage, Anglo-Catholics would likely still be marginalized as effete, fussy misfits. But Dearmer's synthesis was successful, and such once-controversial Anglo-Catholic practices as the weekly celebration of the Eucharist, and the reservation of the Sacrament, have become normal. (All of this seems peculiarly prescient today, of course, as we continue to weather one of the most tumultuous periods in liturgical history. Hmmm.)

All of this gives you some idea of how excited I was to find a copy of Dearmer's final book, Man and His Maker, in a Toronto used bookstore. Published in 1936 by the short-lived Student Christian Movement Press, the book does not seem ever to have been reprinted and seems to be quite rare even in large academic libraries. I'm amazed and delighted to have found a copy by pure happenstance, and for only a few dollars!

Which made it all the more disappointing to discover that Man and His Maker is not very good.

Subtitled "Science, Religion and the Old Problems," the book aims to clarify the relationship between science and religion. Using the current state of scientific knowledge and putting it in a theological perspective, Dearmer tries to illuminate longstanding problems about the nature of God, and the problem of evil. These are perennial issues, and a fresh approach to them is always welcome. Unfortunately, three factors make Dearmer's book of limited use to a contemporary reader.

Firstly, the book is unfinished. The preface suggests that Dearmer intended a single additional chapter to conclude the book, but I suspect that far more than this is missing; the ambitiously titled "Part III: God" contains only one very brief chapter, at which point the book simply ends. Even if the material in Parts I and II had been particularly fine, one is bound to be somewhat disturbed by this sudden drop into oblivion.

Secondly, Dearmer doesn't have a particularly strong grasp of science (for starters, ammonia is not an element!), and the scientific facts that he does get right are now obsolete. In one particularly painful passage, Dearmer rhapsodizes about the unique, life-sustaining properties of water, including its high specific heat capacity. "A pot of mercury, for instance, on a stove takes half an hour to become as hot as a pot of water by its side becomes in only one minute." This, of course, is backwards. It's not Dearmer's fault, of course, that transuranium elements had not been synthesized in 1936, or that DNA had not yet been linked to heredity, but now that we know these things it's extremely difficult to read older scientific texts without impatience. One chapter of the book addresses the theory of evolution, but "evolution" in 1936 is wholly distinct from the version of the theory taught now. (Among other things, evolutionists in the 1930s assumed there was no mechanism by which acquired traits could be transmitted from one generation to the next, leading them to repudiate Darwin's theory of natural selection in favour of the idea that evolution was governed by an abstract force.) Because these parts of Dearmer's book are so closely tied to the particular scientific theories of the time, now wholly obsolete, they have limited relevance to a reader today. An object lesson, perhaps, in the dangers of "relevance"; theological problems about the nature of God and the meaning of evil are as pressing today as they were ten thousand years ago, while scientific theories considered correct within living memory are now regarded as wholly ridiculous.

Most problematic, however, is the generally shallow and facile quality to Dearmer's argumentation. The problem of evil is sometimes presented in a superficial way ("if God exists, why didn't the subway arrive on time?"), but understood properly, it's a difficult and complex problem, a real challenge to the complacency of comfortable middle-class Anglicans. It is very difficult to argue for the ultimate goodness of the Creator without abstracting away the suffering of actual people; any argument that suggests that cancer and genocide ultimately "work out for the best" is smarmy and insulting. Dearmer, unfortunately, has more than a bit of this bien-pensant optimism in him:
For there is progress. The good is winning, so far as we can see. Up to the present there has undoubtedly been moral advance: the gain has been neither uniform nor unbroken: there are still backward peoples, there have been eras of marked fruition followed by periods of decline; but no serious student of history would deny the immense achievement. . . [E]ven in periods of great anarchy, when the very foundations of social life seemed to be disappearing, the power of the family has held men together, until the conquerors and dividers had passed in the fury of their own destruction.
Human suffering is not so much justified as simply dismissed as illusory. Deaths from war and disease are regrettable carryovers from our savage past, but our scientific development will end in the "eventual elimination" of disease (p. 43) and our cultural development will likewise result in the elimination of war and injustice. And not only all the problems of humanity, but the flaws in Dearmer's arguments are sure to disappear in time:
At the very least, we can say that [these difficulties] are less obdurate to us than to our ancestors, because we know more. Therefore, we have reason to suppose that as human knowledge increases, these difficulties will increasingly diminish.
Dearmer had no idea, of course, that one of the largest massacres in history was taking place in the gulags of the Soviet Union while he was writing these words, nor could he have imagined the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the killing fields of Cambodia. To you and I, for whom the history of the twentieth century is in large part a grim litany of horrors, the progressivist optimism of the 1930s seems bizarre and perverse.

I don't deny that reading Dearmer's prose again was a pleasure, but there is little else to recommend this volume. The best ideas in the book are familiar from better works of theology, and they do not balance out its many failings.

Even the greatest writer strikes out occasionally. Percy Dearmer wrote many works far better than Man and his Maker. The book should probably not have been published, and is certainly not worth the effort of tracking down today unless you're a diehard collector of Anglo-Catholic theological books.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday links

Friday, July 23, 2010

On not presenting concerts badly

I've had occasion in this blog to be critical of the writings of Greg Sandow, who blogs about the "ossification" and "irrelevance" of today's classical music scene, and how he thinks we can fix those problems. There are some fundamental issues on which I will never agree with Sandow. He thinks that classical music should become more like the general non-classical culture (as though that culture were exempt from criticism, and as though it weren't defined and shaped precisely by its relationship with the art of the past). More specifically, he thinks that classical music needs to emulate the musical language and presentation of pop music, which is a non-starter - the two forms are distinct, and serve different social functions. Luckily, there is little chance of such an outlook being accepted by practicing musicians - no-one could perform a Mozart piano sonata in public if they truly believed that the music was irrelevant and that everyone in the audience would prefer to be watching television.

Occasionally, though, Sandow hits upon an extremely important point, as here:
And there's something brain-dead about the way classical music presents itself. My favorite example: the instrumentation of orchestral works, as dutifully listed in orchestra concert programs. ("Three flutes, one doubling piccolo, three oboes, one doubling English horn, three clarinets, one doubling E flat clarinet and one doubling bass clarinet...") At least in our big orchestras, these lists don't correspond with what the audience sees on stage. The composer wrote the piece for four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones, but what's on stage are five horns, three trumpets, and four trombones.

Why? Because the principal horn and trumpet have the royal privilege of not playing some of the ensemble passages in their parts, so they can save themselves for their solos. An extra player sits on stage to play those passages. The top trombone part will sound better, in soft music, with two players on it instead of two [sic].

These are fascinating details of orchestral life. But they're never explained to the audience. And meanwhile the instrumentation lists -- night after night, week after week, year after year -- don't correspond to what the whole world can see on stage, and nobody seems to care. If that doesn't show a disconnect between classical music and the world -- even with its own world! -- I don't know what does. We've ossified. We've forgotten that we're a group of people, doing things for other people, who may have thoughts about what we do, and may notice discrepancies in what we present.
I think Sandow overstates his case. Any institution with a distinct culture is going to develop characteristic jargon that newcomers find difficult to understand. To a reader who can make sense of an orchestral score, those "two trumpets" signify two trumpet parts, not two trumpet players. These sorts of disconnects between the layperson and the professional are hardly specific to classical music.

But the broader point still applies: if you're going to present music to an audience, you should think carefully about what you're doing. If the way you present music leaves the audience with unanswered questions (like why there are three trumpets instead of two), you should do your best to answer them. And if you're going to give your audience a programme booklet to read, it should sufficiently well-produced to be worth reading.

Frankly, inconsistencies in instrumentation are the least of the problems in most concert programmes. Biographies of famous conductors and soloists often fill an entire page in the programme, but no-one would ever read them because they consist entirely of small-print lists of awards received and recent performance venues, presented in a manner that makes the "begat" lists in the Old Testament look like Reader's Digest. Programme notes vary widely in every aspect except for the quality of their writing, which is rarely better than mediocre. Composers contribute arcane analyses of their works which cannot be understood without following a published score. Harried interns, told to produce a brief note on some canonical composition, produce a patchwork of incorrect facts, apocryphal stories and dubious attempts at interpretation, all culled from Wikipedia. Well-intentioned performers describe their current repertoire in language that assumes advanced musical background, all the while failing to mention any element of the piece that a lay audience would find interesting. Then there are the performers who want to "help" their audience to learn more about classical music by stopping to define such musical terms as "Baroque" and "scale," so that everyone in the audience is either insulted or confused.

(I forbear to mention those performers who stand up in between pieces and read their programme notes word for word, even though the audience has already had time to read the notes, several times, while waiting for the concert to begin. This goes beyond mere negligence into the realm of actual evil.)

The great difficulty here is striking that golden mean where the audience can understand you but doesn't feel that you're insulting their intelligence. This problem isn't specific to programme notes, but applies to concert programming in general and to the question of whether to talk before a concert. A performer needs a frank appraisal from colleagues or friends if he's going to write his own programme notes or speak during a concert: is your writing good enough to offer for public appraisal? If not, how can it be improved? Are your spoken remarks between pieces concise, witty and informative, or do you ramble for twenty minutes, unaware that your audience wishes you were dead?

The other aspect of presentation is figuring out what an audience of non-musicians finds interesting. This will vary widely within a given room, of course. But it's a major problem for organists, who spend a lot of time thinking about issues that laymen don't care about - registration, articulation, key touch, and details of performance practice. On the other hand, details of the work's history that may seem somewhat arcane are often of considerable interest - things like the circumstances under which the work was written, and the ways it might connect to more famous events in history. Trial and error is the only way to find these things out.

There are many other ways to ruin your audience's lives using programme notes, but the above will have to do until the official formation of an Anti-Awful Programme Note Guild.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Anglicans in the news

The Toronto Star reports: the priest at St Peter's Anglican Church, Toronto, is in hot water for giving a consecrated communion wafer to a dog. The circumstances seem particularly bizarre:
[The dog's owner] had been invited to the service after an incident where police heckled him as he sat peacefully on the steps of the church early one morning during the G20 weekend.

Angry over the experience, he called the church to vent. They invited him to come to church, and he did, bringing his dog with him.

When it was time for communion, the man went up to receive the bread and the wine, with the dog. “I am sure for [Rev'd Marguerite Rea] that was a surprise, like it was for all of us,” said [Deputy People's Warden Peggy] Needham. “But nobody felt like it was a big deal, because it wasn’t a big deal.”

According to the account [Bishop] Yu heard, the man asked the reverend to give the dog a wafer. But Needham says she doesn’t recall the man making such a request. Instead, she said Rev. Rea instinctively leaned over and placed a wafer on the dog’s wagging tongue.
The most charitable response to this is to assume that Rev'd Rea was so distracted during the administration of Communion that she didn't realize what she was doing. Her subsequent embarrassment and refusal to speak to the media support this interpretation. After all, it should be obvious to anyone with a basic grasp of Christian theology that giving the consecrated Host to a dog is completely inappropriate.


But apparently that's not obvious to Toronto Star reporters, or to the average St Peter's parishioner, or to the dozens of people who left vapid and ill-informed comments on the Star website.

The setup of the article uses the typical journalistic conceit of pitting two opposing sides against each other. On the one side, we have Bishop Patrick Yu, attesting that giving Communion to animals is impermissible, that the priest has been asked not to do it again, and that the matter is closed. On the other side, we have Deputy People's Warden Peggy Needham, who informs us that "it wasn't a big deal," that "Anyone might have done that," and that "Christ would have thought it was neat." (Needham is apparently confusing Christ with Dr Phil, a common mistake.) The question, in my mind, is why Needham would be asked for comment about a theological matter at all? A "deputy people's warden" is an elected position, one of four wardens responsible responsible for managing the temporal affairs of the parish; the position involves a lot of committee work and requires no theological training or expertise. She can offer a theological opinion if she wants, but a reporter should know better than to quote it as though it were authoritative.

The Star author, and most of the commenters, frame the question of animal Communion in terms of "inclusivity". Inclusivity is always a good thing, because if we exclude someone it always means that we hate them and wish them to be disempowered. There's a twisted logic to this point of view - after all, if we loved animals, why would we set them apart in a way that treats them as Other? Yet this view is too crude, as though there were no middle term between "God hates dogs and would like us to kill them" and "Dogs should receive Communion."

The point, though, is that humans are different from animals in important ways. Specifically, humans possess a highly developed rational intelligence. We have the capacity for abstract thought, and thus for language. While many animals have highly developed perceptual intelligence and can manipulate tools to perform advanced concrete tasks, they lack this additional level of conceptual abstraction. As humans, we value our intelligence and would never give it up - we can't even imagine existence without the capacity for speculative thought and linguistic invention. Yet there's also a sense in which self-awareness is a Faustian bargain, creating opportunities for wickedness and dissolution as well as virtue and growth. Animals may kill each other for food, or fight over scarce resources, but nothing they do can be properly considered "evil". Ostriches don't commit random acts of vandalism. Armadillos don't wipe each other out with atomic weapons. Iguanas don't build death camps to carry out the mass extermination of other iguanas.

The realization that self-awareness is a mixed blessing is at the heart of the Christian tradition. The Biblical narrative of the Fall tells us that something went wrong from the very beginning - that as soon as humans developed conscious awareness, they turned away from their natural end and toward their selfish desires. Because of this deliberate turn from the Good toward the self, humans require reunion with God, through a process of reconciliation which culminates in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Dogs and ostriches and sea urchins, on the other hand, don't require reunion with God because they are incapable of turning away from him. They don't need the medicine, because they're immune from the disease. Giving the consecrated Host to a dog is wrong not because it would hurt the dog, or because dogs are somehow evil, but because doing so is to pervert the entire message of the Christian faith, and to deeply misunderstand what it means to be human.

All of this would have been taken for granted eighty years ago, of course, but the basics of Christian theology are now so little understood that few churchgoers, and almost no non-Christians, would be able to formulate a good reason why a dog shouldn't receive Communion. And this is a great pity.

Suitable music for a canine-themed service would include choral works and the great G+ organ sonata of Edward Elgar, one of the great dog lovers of music history.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beauty and stuff

Philosopher Roger Scruton stars in Why Beauty Matters, a BBC television production from last year. If you persevere to the end, you get a nice reward in the form of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.

Monday, July 19, 2010

1000 years in 122 pages

I was intrigued to learn of the Student's Guides to the Major Disciplines, a series of books currently being marketed by ISI Books. The books are intended for members of the general public who would benefit from a concise introduction to disciplines in the humanities that would otherwise have passed them by - a sort of do-it-yourself alternative to an institutional liberal arts education. The titles feature an impressive lineup of contributors - John Lukacs on history, the late Ralph McInerny on philosophy, and James V. Schall on "liberal learning".

I was intrigued enough to pick up the volume on music history, authored by Australian organist-composer and writer R. J. Stove. The book attempts to summarize music history from Hildegard of Bingen to the present in language comprehensible by non-musicians, all in a mere 122 pages. Many books have attempted this task, but closer inspection reveals that almost all of them are intended for university music appreciation courses. The most prominent such book is, of course, Joseph Machlis's apparently indestructible The Enjoyment of Music, now into its tenth edition and still a reliable cash-cow for W. W. Norton and Co. Music majors are more likely to encounter Donald Jay Grout's even more indestructible History of Western Music. Purchasers of either volume shell out up to $500 for a dizzying package of materials including the book itself, multiple volumes of scores and a large package of companion CDs and "multimedia learning tools," all of which are produced by committee and are so tightly geared to the requirements of college survey courses as to have no possible use or value after the final exam. More inviting for the average person, perhaps, are Harold Schonberg's Lives of the Great Composers and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise - but since the former is essentially a series of biographical sketches and the latter deals only with twentieth-century music, the need for a good-quality, readable single-volume history remains unmet.

It didn't take long to realize that Stove's history is one of those books that will leave you slightly out of breath at the end. The book's first six pages must suffice for the entire history of western music up until the high Renaissance; its last eight offer a précis of musical trends since 1945. This is not a book to read for detailed biographical sketches; the average speed is approximately one composer per page for most of the book, and often goes considerably faster. To bring history to any semblance of life under such restrictions requires the ability to say much in few words, and a flair for the well-chosen anecdote. Thankfully, Stove has both. I was particularly delighted by his summary of Ockeghem: "[H]e cultivated fantastically elaborate counterpoint, sang bass, and wore glasses." Indeed.

The organization and structure of this text is notably clear and free of jargon. A book on the history of any art form risks becoming a meaningless succession of book-jacket blurbs - decontextualized information that cannot possibly be retained without some broader organizing principle. The usual solution is to wash down the indigestible mass with soothing bromides about "periods" or styles, in the hope that by grouping three hitherto unfamiliar composers together with a simplistic label the reader has thereby learned something interesting. Stove's approach is so unobtrusive as to be almost unnoticeable - unexpected connections between composers are exploited to effect a transition from one to the other, sometimes in surprising ways. Handel, for example, is sandwiched between his English predecessor Purcell and his Italian colleague Corelli; the discussion of Corelli paves the way for a discussion of the Italian school which will eventually lead northwards to J.S. Bach. Such an approach does infinitely more to place the music in a meaningful context than the usual approach of pairing Handel and Bach. Equally memorable was the juxtaposition of Brahms, Bruckner, and Johann Strauss II, giving the reader a broad overview of the variety of music-making in late nineteenth-century Vienna.

A couple of insights are particularly striking, sending me running to listen to the music again - this on Couperin, for example:
Paradoxically, the greater Couperin's blue-blooded and periwigged elegance, the more widespread the sense of desolation behind it. His keyboard oeuvre is a masked ball that repeatedly threatens to turn into the Masque of the Red Death.
Also very fine are the discussions of Richard Strauss and of Carl Nielsen, who is finally beginning to receive the wide recognition he deserves.

There are some problems. Bach's music is unimaginable without predecessors like Pachelbel and Buxtehude, composers that deserve more coverage than the passing references they receive. More context is needed for the development of instrumental music in general, which is pushed aside in favour of vocal forms practically until the advent of Paganini. The most significant omission is a list of recommended works and recordings by each composer; a listener unfamiliar with the repertoire is not helped by the information that Hugo Wolf's songs are "frequently superb," for example, without being told which of his hundreds of songs are the superb ones.

Stove's assessments of composers and works are usually sound. The twentieth-century avant-garde receives spotty coverage, which is fine; this repertoire is the musical equivalent of blue cheese. Someone wanting an introduction to the Western musical tradition probably doesn't mean Xenakis, and someone who would enjoy Xenakis will find him without our help. The assessment of Stravinsky, though, leaves something to be desired - he tells us that the composer's "creative gifts had already peaked" by 1917, and that little of his later music "shared the quality of, or even appeared to come from the same hand as, his pre-1918 achievements." I've more or less given up on trying to understand why some people like later Stravinsky and others don't - there is no apparent pattern. For me, the bracing tragedy of Oedipus Rex, the awe-inspiring Symphony of Psalms and the alternately hilarious and touching The Rake's Progress can stand with any of his early ballets. For Stove, and for many otherwise intelligent musicians, the entire style is a closed book. Even more bizarre, for me, was the assertion that Brahms's chamber music is "on the whole, less performed and less attractive" than his other music. Far from being unattractive, Brahms's trios and quartets are among my favourite pieces of music, full stop, and seem to me to be at the heart of his entire output.

Yet the critical judgements in books like these are at best a mere crutch, helping the new listener to orient himself in a repertory before he develops particular tastes of his own. The cure to the errors of emphasis in this book, or any other, is more listening. It would be surprising if anyone could read this little book without being inspired to listen to some of the music Stove describes, and on that count it must be considered a success. Add to that the fact that the book can be comfortably read in an evening and is available in an extremely cheap paperback edition, and the book becomes self-recommending.

The joy of self-knowledge

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Help me out here, folks - is this a good or a bad thing? I've never read Lovecraft.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In defence of "classical"

Elissa Milne reports on the Classical Music Futures Summit, where keynote speaker Greg Sandow and a number of other participants expressed their frustration with the label "classical," and suggested that the term be banned "from advocacy, advertising and conversation". The idea is that the term has institutional and social overtones that turn people away. "Classical" doesn't indicate something significant about the music - its only content is social snobbery and smug elitism. A persuasive advocate for this position is Alex Ross, in his classic (heh) essay "Listen to This":
I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype.

I wonder, though, if our eagerness to ditch the "classical" label isn't misplaced? As a young, callow student, I was fond of reminding people that "classical" only means the music of the late eighteenth century, and shouldn't be applied to the Western literate tradition in general. Now, older and somewhat less callow, I realize that this was wrong - the term "classical" is applied to eighteenth-century European music only by analogy with the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, whose ideals the Enlightenment musicians tried to emulate. And the Greeks and Romans themselves were classic because later civilizations considered them to be classicus (that is, "of the highest class"). When we say that the Iliad is a "classic," we mean that, although it may be old, its quality sets it apart as still worth reading today. This is presumably also what we mean when we define a particular historic repertory as "classical."

There's another sense in which my younger self was wrong, though; to draw distinctions unnecessarily can be a form of intellectual one-upmanship. Your average person knows what he means when he says "classical music" - he means a work from the past, played on acoustic instruments by trained performers reading off notation. He may associate the term with various unpleasant aspects of the orchestral concert experience - sitting quietly in an uncomfortable seat with no legroom, surrounded by elderly people in suits who glare at him when he coughs or claps at the wrong time - but those aspects are not inseparable from the word "classical". That is, an informal concert of Beethoven in a park would still be "classical," but a U2 concert in Symphony Hall under the conditions I've just described is clearly not "classical." The essential, non-negotiable elements of "classical music," for our man-on-the-street, are its use of particular acoustic instruments and vocal styles, the fact that it's written in notation, and the fact that the work is being performed many years after the fact by a person other than the composer. One might quibble with this definition - it excludes improvised music, and much experimental and electronic composition of the last century - but there's no denying that these characteristics constitute a workable description of the literate Western tradition of classical music, from Palestrina to Ferneyhough. To turn to our hypothetical gentleman and tell him that, actually, we don't like the term "classical," and we'd like to use a different word of our own choosing that tells people just what we're all about, is to condescend to him, and he's likely to resent it.

The broader point, perhaps, is one of humility. No-one gets to pick his own nickname, and least of all does an artistic movement have the privilege of doing so. When you think about it, in fact, all of the terms we use to periodicize music history are factually incorrect. The Middle Ages are only "middle" if you believe they were an tiresome period of misery in which people twiddled their thumbs in between the ancient Roman Empire and the Renaissance; the "rebirth" of the Renaissance, meanwhile, was itself really just the culmination of a period of intellectual vibrancy in the late medieval period. "Baroque," "Rococo" and "Impressionist" were all terms of critical opprobrium, bitterly resented the artists who worked in those periods. The "Classical" period was really "Neo-Classical," and the Romantic period included many other intellectual strands besides Romanticism. "Modernism," meanwhile, is getting less and less modern with every passing minute. Yet all of these terms are useful in casual discourse to define a particular area of artistic endeavour. More experienced musicians quickly discover the limits of these terms - the lines between them are blurry, the specific traits they define difficult to pin down - but they provide a useful way of communicating quickly with others.

What is the real problem with the word "classical"? It's not that the connotations of the term "classical" fail to describe the works performed by "classical" musicians. If John Cage and Pauline Oliveros are difficult to reconcile with this Everyman's definition of "classical", that's to be expected - the point of their work was precisely to challenge musical conventions and stretch conventional barriers. If many contemporary composers fail to fit into the "classical" mould, that's probably just as well for them - they'll probably get more listeners without it. But in terms of the mainstream of performance practice, the repertoire that is taught at conservatories and university music departments, the music that is studied in music history and theory classes, there is very little music that stretches the average person's definition of the term "classical music".

No, the problem has more to do with the nature of the word itself. The words "classical" and "classic" are terms of approbation - they signify a work from the past that is of proven quality and value. But one doesn't have to be a particularly astute observer of modern life to observe that contemporaneity is valued more than permanence, current relevance more than past success. With an infinity of new entertainment options on the television and computer, what could Beethoven's Ninth have to say to me? It's not so much that anyone disagrees with the implicit endorsement implied by the term "classical"; rather, it's simply considered as irrelevant. This chronological bias is combined with a certain lingering antinomianism: can we trust the authority that deemed this symphony to be of lasting value? Isn't the idea of hierarchy inherently elitist?

The fact is, though, that old books and old music do still have much to say to us today. Their longevity is not a proof of irrelevance, but rather the opposite: an indication that they were found relevant in times and places far removed from the ones where they were written. But if we are to make a case for music written hundreds of years ago, surely the first order of business is to rehabilitate terms like "classical"? People aren't stupid - if they think that music from the past means music that is irrelevant and boring, they're going to stay away from your concert of Mozart piano trios whether you put "classical" on the poster or not.

The challenge, then, is not to come up with a new, snazzy name for music of the Western literate tradition. Instead, we need creativity in performance, marketing and concert programming. We need to show how music from the past can be related to today's realities, and we also need to show how it can be relevant in and of itself. It's not enough just to stress the "contemporary relevance" of Mozart operas without building a long-term audience that appreciates the music on its own terms; neither is it enough to simply present the operas as though they were self-explanatory without any further context or attempts at education. What we need, in short, is an Aristotleian mean between the extremes of ivory-tower insularity and pandering hucksterism, combined with the absolute highest standards of excellence in performance and scholarship. Attempting to rename the "classical" genre may be an interesting exercise, but in the long run it is likely to be neither possible nor desirable.

Modernist music and pop culture

First the Second Viennese School, now Varèse:

(h/t Mind the Gap)

This is so tasteless as to be really awesome, and I found myself wondering why this hasn't been done before. Much twentieth-century music - and I think particularly of my own favourite avant-gardist, Xenakis - has a strong spatial, almost visual appeal that would seem to offer limitless possibilities for video presentation. Unfortunately, this is usually done badly, as in the following example (danger: epilepsy warning):

I own the complete eighty-minute DVD from which this clip is excerpted. Only someone who has experienced it can possibly imagine how tiresome these visuals become after an hour. And so unnecessary, too, because the visual aspect of the musical performance is frequently so interesting - as in this hypnotic performance of Rébonds B:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Adventures in the echo chamber

Maybe it's just me, but the world of classical music blogging seems awfully. . . quiet. Of course, the middle of June has never been peak blogging season, but this goes back a lot farther than that - a few months, at least. Blogs where one could once count on an interesting short piece every once in a while - Soho the Dog, Classical Convert, Deceptively Simple - are now rarely updated. Other music bloggers post more regularly, but there seems to be less in the way original content - essays, controversial opinions, expository writing - and more links to YouTube videos, press releases, and Wikipedia. For my own part, the impulse to blog has been pretty weak of late, and it hasn't helped that I'm spending so much of the summer on the road, heading to various concerts, competitions, and conferences. Is this the death of blogging? If blogging is, in fact, dead, would anyone care?

This is less of an issue for me, since I'm a retrograde, anachronistic sort of blogger - my posts here are really short essays, modelled more after William Hazlitt than Perez Hilton. I used to feel guilty if I stopped posting for too long, but I've since thought better of it - anyone at this point who wants to follow blogs has found a decent RSS reader and will probably not even notice if my posts stop appearing in their feeds.

At the moment there are two musical items of interest in my feed reader. The first, from Alex Ross, points me to the fascinating-sounding event Make Music NY, which is proceeding as I write this - a citywide music festival including two renditions of Riley's In C (one on mobile phones) and several works by Xenakis, including his version of the Oresteia, and the epochal percussion work Persephassa, performed on the lake in Central Park. Alas, I am not in New York, and have to satisfy my hankerings for Xenakis with a recording of Keqrops.

The second is the latest salvo from Greg Sandow, who for several months has been posting draft chapters of his forthcoming book on the future of classical music. Sandow's longstanding contention has been that classical music is in trouble - that it's lost touch with the larger culture outside, and that unless we make some effort to reconcile the music we love with the "age of pop" around us, we'll begin to see orchestras and opera houses going bankrupt for lack of an audience.

Sandow is an intelligent writer, and is passionate about the subject; his posts always attract discussion and controversy. I've avoided taking part in his blog comment threads, however, because I've taken part in about half a dozen discussions just like it:
  • As an organist, I'm told that church music has lost touch with the culture around us, and that we need a more contemporary style to attract young people. (The irony is not lost on me that I am always the youngest person in the room during these discussions.) The integrity and unique qualities of church music are pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.
  • As an Anglican, I frequently hear that the liturgy is getting stale, and that we need a more informal and colloquial style of address to attract young people. The integrity and unique qualities of Anglican liturgy are pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.
  • In the broader Christian community, many people insist that traditional Church doctrine has become irrelevant and outdated, and that we must abandon those aspects of Christian teaching - seemingly far-fetched and miraculous stories, or inconvenient moral precepts - that clash with the prevailing ideology of the secular world. The integrity and unique message of Christianity is pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.
  • Many years ago, I used to play PC adventure games a fair bit (remember Myst? the game that made everyone run out and by a CD-ROM drive, but that no-one finished because the plot was poorly paced and the puzzles were too difficult? That sort of thing) and for a while used to frequent a message board dedicated to the genre. And, surprise, the main activity on the message board consisted of arguments between adventure game purists, who insisted that sedate puzzle solving was the essence of the adventure game genre, and a more "open-minded" faction that believed the games would be more popular if they incorporated fast-paced action elements. (All of this is now a moot point, of course, as the games in question back then are now completely obsolete.) The basic point, though, is that the integrity and unique qualities of the adventure game genre were pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.

These are obvious, perhaps tedious, examples, and I could list others. But why do we have this identical argument every time we discuss any natural or human phenomenon? Why is it always so controversial, and yet so boringly predictable?

The answer, I think, is that all of these debates manifest a general philosophical question: how do we reconcile the universal and the particular?

There are, of course, two extreme examples; on the one hand, you have the post-Kantian, Enlightenment tradition that wants to access universal truths (justice, beauty, truth) through unaided reason. On the other hand, you have the standpoint of radical relativism, which says that there are only isolated particulars, and no universal standpoint from which they can be judged.

But doesn't this amount to the same thing? In practice, don't the proponents of cultural relativism usually turn out to be supporters of abstract schemes of universal justice? The supposed "relativist" begins by pointing out that his opponent's position is contingent and dependent upon various social factors. Since there is no absolute standard of cultural norms, or of ethical behaviour, he continues, the ideal society is one that is value-neutral and utilitarian, using technology and bureaucratic expertise to satisfy everyone's desires equally. What began as an attempt to respect the value of individual cultural traditions ends by creating a uniform society that erases all meaningful cultural differences.

Compare this to the classical music debate. On the one hand, we frequently hear people say that genre doesn't matter - "there's only good music and bad music". It doesn't matter whether you're listening to classical music, or jazz, or top-40 pop, or indie rock, or death metal, or acid punk, because they're all "just music". This is radical universalism. On the other hand, classical musicians are frequently attacked for trying to apply classical standards to other musical genres - the standards of classical theory, we're told, simply don't apply to pop music; the styles are too different. Carry this a little farther, and you have the ethos of CBC Radio Two - musical tastes are wholly relative and arbitrary, no music has universal appeal, and so the national radio broadcaster should serve up bite-sized portions of widely varying musical styles over the course of the day in order that each person in the country should be happy for five minutes. This is radical relativism.

Yet here, too, radical relativism and radical universalism turn out to be the same thing. When the CBC axed its classical schedule, their new programming was supposed to let a hundred flowers blossom, reflecting the enormous variety of our nation's multicultural heritage. In actuality, Radio Two became another unremarkable "adult contemporary" station with an unlistenably banal and unadventurous daytime classical show. If you try to embrace radical diversity without a basic organizing principle to bind it together, you will always end up with bland uniformity.

The solution is a paradox: universal concepts can only be known through particular experiences, cultures, and traditions. Contrariwise: particular cultures and traditions flourish best when understood as part of a larger context, as manifesting universal tendencies and trends.

What does all of this have to do with the future of classical music? Why has this post run so long? Who picked these colours?

My basic point is that any attempt to create a new future for classical music will have to accept the paradox of the universal and the particular. If we try to "create an audience" for fringe genres of music by making them sound more like mainstream pop, we'll get a sort of shapeless musical blancmange that no-one would ever want to listen to. Thankfully, there is no chance of this actually happening: the people involved in indie rock, or contemporary classical, or Quebec separatist rap, are doing it because they love the individual and unique qualities of that style, and think it's best suited to what they want to express. A meaningful dialogue between classical and pop music, therefore, would begin by asking what makes them different, why those differences are meaningful, and how those differences play out in terms of an actual musical experience. If you want to go on an hour-long emotional journey, exploring the possibilities of a few thematic ideas, then a Bruckner symphony is probably just what you're looking for. But everyone doesn't want that all the time, and any musical culture should enable people to have the sorts of different musical experiences that they value most.

I made essentially this point (minus the philosophical excursus) in a comment to Sandow's blog. He and I are in agreement, at least, that classical and pop music have substantive differences. Where we disagree is on how those differences ought to actually play out. I feel that the Western classical tradition deserves special status as the only example of a developed literate (ie: notated) musical tradition, and because its current form is contiguous with the European cultural heritage upon which our current society is based. He places a greater emphasis than I would on the supposed "spontaneity" of improvisation (the improvisers I admire, in the classical and jazz traditions, are in fact quite carefully structured, a trait I try to emulate when I improvise), and his complaint that classical works fail to live up to today's politically correct norms is, in my view, anachronistic and unhelpful. Most problematic, for me, is his frequent comparison of 19th-century virtuosi to today's pop stars, a facile equation that ignores the enormous impact of the mass media, without which modern pop music would never have emerged in anything like its current form. It is unlikely that I will agree with the conclusions he comes up with in his book, but his ideas are still worth considering.

All of this, of course, is just another part of the Concertina Brow agenda:

The Concertina Brow: Defending Legitimate Cultural Particularity Against Relativist/Universalist Homogenization.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The museum of imaginary musical works

The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works is the central conceit in a book of that title by philosopher Lydia Goehr. Her book is an essay on musical ontology, which tries to pinpoint exactly what constitutes a musical "work." When we talk about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, for example, we're not talking about a particular performance (because a performance could be quite different and still be considered Beethoven's Ninth). We're certainly not talking about the musical score, which is only a physical object and has a lot of accidental features (including, in the case of Beethoven's manuscripts, near-illegible handwriting) which don't seem to be essential to the musical work. Goehr suggests that when we talk about "works" in a musical context, we are effectively positing the existence of an imaginary museum containing the essence of each musical work in a static form.

All of this is very interesting, but I'm interested in a different sort of imaginary museum. Goehr's museum contains Platonic ideal constructions of pieces of music that actually exist; mine contains works that were never actually composed, and have been called into a sort of half-life by mistake.

Such works include:
  • Brahms's cello concerto
  • Pachelbel's Canon, by Vivaldi
  • The symphonies of Chopin
What usually happens is that some literary person is giving a speech, or writing a book, and they want to allude to the Grand Tradition of Human Creativity, exemplified by quintessential works of genius in several different media. So they begin constructing a list in Mad Libs style:
  • a [Name of Genre] by [Famous Person]
  • a sonnet by Shakespeare
  • a novel by Dickens
  • a painting by Monet
  • a sculpture by Michelangelo
  • a play by Ibsen
  • a piano concerto by Palestrina

The problem is that, while most educated people know that Shakespeare wasn't a novelist and that Monet wasn't an architect, a relatively small number are familiar with the generic conventions and history of Western classical music. So we musicians are left with an impressive and growing repertory of hypothetical works, the thought of which is alternately fascinating and repellent. (Based on the starchy orchestration in his piano concerti, I'll pass on hearing a Chopin symphony - but I'd be fascinated to hear a clever composer take on the task of constructing a piano concerto based on Palestrina motets. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that such a composition has already been written, probably by someone like Casella.)

For a typical example, here's Robertson Davies in an otherwise excellent book of published lectures:
Literature is an art, and reading is also an art, and unless you recognize and develop your qualities as an interpretive artist you are not getting the best from your reading. You do not play a Bach concerto for the solo cello on a musical saw, and you should not read a play of Shakespeare in the voice of an auctioneer selling tobacco.
Reading and Writing, 18.

Now, I have an immense admiration for Robertson Davies, who was a wonderful novelist and an incisive and humane literary critic; his well-conceived allusions to musical topics in his novels and his activity as an opera librettist demonstrate that his musical knowledge was far above average. But the mistake above is pretty well the most typical example possible of the phenomenon I'm describing. To a lay audience, Bach signifies the apex of musical profundity, the cello represents an Especially Profound Instrument (blame the Romantics for that one), and the concerto represents a Significant Musical Genre. It seems only natural to combine the three things, and it's a shame that Bach never actually wrote a concerto for the solo cello. A disproportionate number of imaginary compositions are cello concerti (in the last two months I have heard cello concerti attributed to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, none of whom wrote one), and a large proportion are by Bach, which confirms my suspicion that words like "Bach" and "cello" are rhetorical signifiers, and are not intended to allude to actual musical works (the kind with notes and things).

I am not just making fun. I'm genuinely fascinated by the thought of all of these hypothetical pieces - what would Beethoven's Requiem be like? Why didn't Brahms write a cello concerto?

One doesn't often encounter imaginary composers, however, and so I took particular delight in a conversation with a gentleman parishioner who expressed his skepticism to me about atonal modern music. He was particularly mistrustful of a German composer by the name of Spengler, and his even more unlistenable student, Max Weber. Of course he meant Schoenberg and Webern, but what sort of music would the author of The Decline of the West possibly compose? The mind reels.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

RIP Yvonne Loriod

Yvonne Loriod, the brilliant pianist and second wife of Composer Olivier Messiaen, has died at the age of eighty-six. For a good account of her career and life with Messiaen, see the New York Times obituary. Without the influence of Loriod, a brilliant performer with faultless technique and a seemingly limitless palette of colours, it is hard to imagine how any of his major post-war works would have taken shape.

You can hear Loriod in action in this performance of Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung; the pianist plays rapid birdsong interpolations above a background of lush chords in the strings. (Warning: this recording is very quiet. Turn your speakers up before listening - but, more importantly, turn them down afterwards.)
And for a lighter side of the couple, here they are in a film discussing the composer's use of birdsong. Loriod plays excerpts from her husband's piano music; Messiaen talks very rapidly and makes loud bird noises. Loriod's indulgent smile at 0:56 says it all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On the art of super-poetry

W. H. Auden pithily defined poetry as "memorable speech," and a great part of the joy of reading poetry seems to be in the remembering - that once you've read a really good poem, bits of it will rattle around in your head forever. When you least expect it, some half-forgotten line of verse will emerge from the shadows and hit you over the head, insinuating itself into your daily routine and becoming a permanent part of your mental landscape. For me, Middle English poetry occupies a particularly prominent place in my memory; written for oral recitation, it has an incantatory, musical quality that makes it lodge in my memory. Which is true as much for the liquid elegance of Chaucer as it is for the hammer-blows of the Pearl-Poet. I suppose it says something about me that my favourite couplet in English verse is this, from the opening of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight":
Siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye
þe borʒ brittened and brent to brondez and askez

The poem seems to ask to be recited aloud - and enthusiastically, with spittle flying everywhere and exaggerated rolled r's on "brittened," "brent," and so on. It's delightful.

(I suppose this is as good a place as any to apologize to anyone who has had the misfortune to meet me at some party and be subjected to my extempore recitations of "Sir Gawain" or the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.)

This musical quality persists, albeit considerably altered, in modern poetry, and so along with Chaucer and co. I find myself recollecting bits of Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Eliot, and so on. The problem, though, is that in reconstructing the texts of these poems in my memory I conflate quite unrelated bits of verse from different periods. Thus, in attempting to remember Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" I invariably produce the following novel variant:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
At this point I usually realize that something is amiss and stop.

(For the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, the poem that interrupts after the fourth line is John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," a poem written by a Canadian doctor during World War I. It is probably the only Canadian poem that everyone in the country stands a good chance of knowing, having heard it read on Remembrance Day every year since time immemorial. To be truly authentic, the poem must be read by a sweaty ten-year-old in an undifferentiated monotone, pausing at the end of each line for a sharp intake of breath; at the back of the gymnasium, a harried teacher should be shushing a restless grade two class.)

It is perhaps understandable that I should conflate Frost's poem with McCrae's: they both have the same slightly pedestrian tetrameter rhythm (ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump, ka-bump), and use repeating rhyme schemes to similar effect. The transition from the one poem to the other is made seamless by a coincidence in their two rhyme schemes ("snow" with "foe"). One can even imagine a shared narrative in which the two poems' meanings are reconciled. Why does Frost's narrator resist his morbid fascination with the snowy woods? Because he has obligations to fulfill ("promises to keep"). Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that his "promises" were made to the dead soldiers in the fields of Flanders ("Take up our quarrel with the foe") - and that by honourably fulfilling their charge the traveller and the soldiers can finally reach the rest they yearn for? (Compare Frost's "miles to go before I sleep" with McCrae's "If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep") Nunc dimittis servum tuum, indeed!

I may perhaps be excused for taking some aesthetic satisfaction in the combination of the two poems above, although I leave it to future scholars to decide whether it is preferable to the original as poetry. I am rather less proud of my other contribution to English literature, a mutant hybrid of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
I would welcome suggestions on what these two poems could possibly have to do with each other, or - more pertinently - on how I can separate them again.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A forgotten composer

The problem with music is that there's a lot of it. As the developed countries have increased in affluence, a broader and broader cross-section of the world's population has been able to gain access to musical training - meaning that more and more composers are writing music. It's simply impossible to keep track of it all, which means that most composers fall through the cracks.

Like the composer Harald Genzmer (1909-2007), a German follower of Paul Hindemith. Many listeners are wary of the German neoclassical school, imagining arid contrapuntal exercises full of bare fifths and fourths, but Genzmer's work stands out for its warmth and lyricism. His catalogue includes a wide array of music in all genres except opera - including a prolific output for organ that I am just beginning to explore. The closest thing he has to a hit seems to be his Sinfonietta for string orchestra, composed in 1955, which can stand up to any of the more frequently performed works by Vaughan Williams, Tippett and company.

Unfortunately, Genzmer's music is poorly represented online at the moment, and I urge you not to listen to any of the performances of his orchestral music on YouTube; the performers mean well but are painfully out of tune. Instead, try this trio for flute, viola and harp, which is not particularly characteristic of his style but at least pleasant:
Part II:Part III:Part IV:Samples from his other works are available on the Harald Genzmer Foundation page. It is well worth looking for the complete 10-CD boxset of his music on Thorofon - it seems not to have sold well, as copies occasionally surface at online retailers for fire-sale prices. If the bustling neoclassicism of Hindemith and middle-period Stravinsky is your thing, then you have hours of discovery ahead of you in Genzmer's music. If it's not, well, that's tough.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good morning!

Over at All Manner of Thing, we have a link to the latest First Things article by David Bentley Hart, who reviews the latest book-writing efforts from the New Atheists and finds them - surprise! - tediously preachy and intellectually shallow. None of this is news, of course. No trained logician or historian could endorse for a minute the arguments in the bestselling tracts by Christopher Dawkins, Richard Hitchens et alia. Still less could a person of any aesthetic sensibility sympathize with their mission, which is essentially to bully people away from the nourishing symbolic frameworks of religious belief and propose, instead, that they accept the tiresome secular humanism that was fashionable in the 1970s. This is weak-tea stuff indeed, and its prevalence today - as Hart rightly notes - is symptomatic of a general decline in all religious discourse, from believers and non-believers alike.

Hart's article is worth a read, but mostly for its wit: anything that can be said about the New Atheists has already been said, and there is little hope that the continued discourse will produce anything other than mutual misunderstanding and shrill diatribes. More interesting, perhaps, is an exchange between two similarly-named atheists of very different stripes: John Gray and A. C. Grayling.

I've mentioned Gray's writing on these pages before, but knew little about Grayling (although I enjoyed reading his compact exposition of Wittgenstein). The publication of Grayling's book Ideas That Matter has ignited an apparently longstanding rivalry between the two, with Gray's publication of a rather scathing review of the book:
. . . his views on ethics, politics and religion, while adamantly held, are commonplace. Aside from the vehemence with which his prejudices are expressed, there is nothing in Ideas that Matter that would raise an eyebrow at the most genteel Hampstead dinner party. Anyone who remembers British left-liberal opinion as it was in the seventies will immediately recognize it here. Socialism and democracy, the horrors of religion and the near inevitability of ongoing secularization—these ephemera of a half-forgotten past are presented as ruling ideas of the twenty-first century.
Grayling, in other words, represents the traditional liberal-humanist view: reason can solve all problems, religion is irrational and therefore evil, and society can be indefinitely ameliorated by applying logic and technical know-how to all problems. Gray, on the other hand, believes that reason has its limits, that religion serves an important role as social cement (even though he disbelieves its metaphysical claims), and that the idea of infinite progress is an illusion.

(Three guesses which one of the two I find most sympathetic.)

In his book Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield argues that we perceive reality through a series of representations. When we come into contact with an everyday object, like a chair, we never perceive it as a set of raw sense data ("I see an irregularly-shaped brown patch in my visual field") - we simply perceive the object ("I see a chair"). The neurosis of the modern world, argues Barfield, is that for the first time in history we have come to perceive our collective representations of reality as though they were universally true: that is, we imagine that we have access, through scientific reason, to an "unrepresented core" of reality that is valid for all. Yet this consensus seems to be growing more and more fragile: the more we investigate the core constituents of physical reality (the world of subatomic particles), the more it begins to seem as though we can speak about them only in metaphors.

If Barfield is wrong and we understand the world perfectly, then there's no reason in principle why we couldn't indefinitely improve our civilization forever. If, on the other hand, our understanding of the world models and imperfectly tracks a reality that we can never fully grasp, then we are doomed to rely on traditions, habits, and customs to orient ourselves. We can strive to improve our lives at a local level - after all, our local surroundings are the part of reality that we best understand - but we can no longer believe that history is a steady march towards a secular utopia, each day a little better than the next.

Perhaps the different outlooks in question here can be reduced to three different ways of saying "Good morning". Most of us mean it as an expression of good wishes: "I hope you have a good morning". The secular humanist intends it as a prediction: "You will undoubtedly have a good morning, and an even better one tomorrow." The totalitarian dictator makes it a demand: "You will have a good morning."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Well, it could happen.

An article at Futility Closet reprints an awesome 1910 Strand magazine feature: "If Insects Were Bigger." Basically, the authors inserted closeup pictures of insects into idyllic Edwardian street scenes. My favourite detail is the man brandishing his walking stick at the enormous creature:Fig. 1: A Lacewing Fly Spreads Consternation in Wellington Street.

The author of the original article ends with the following thought-provoking insight:

"It is true we are still molested by hordes of wild animals of bloodthirsty propensities. These wild animals only lack the single quality – namely, that of size – to render them all-powerful and all-desolating, and this quality they have not been able to attain owing to the lack of favouring conditions."

The pedant in me is obligated to point out that the scenario envisaged by the Strand author - that is, the growth of houseflies the size of camels and grasshoppers the size of passenger aircraft - is physically impossible. It's not just a matter of a "lack of favouring conditions"; the fact is that a housefly simply can't be scaled up to that size and still support its own weight. Suppose that all its dimensions were increased by a factor n; its volume would thus increase by n^3 (ie: cubed), which would mean that its mass would also be cubed. All this extra mass, however, is still supported by its spindly insect legs, whose cross-sectional area has increased by the factor n^2 (ie: squared). As the insect becomes larger and larger, the difference between n^2 and n^3 would become larger and larger, until finally its limbs become completely unable to hold up its body and the creature is unable to move. The same logic applies, of course, to its wings and every other organ in its body. An insect could never reach the size depicted above without massive physiological changes that would make its appearance unrecognizable.

That's what the pedant in me says. Mostly, I just think giant insects would be awesome.

(h/t Wondermark. Does everyone read this webcomic already? If not, you should.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The joys of WikiHow

I'm not sure how I first came across WikiHow, but I'm endlessly amused. It's a collection of how-to articles on a variety of subjects which anyone - yes, Billy, absolutely anyone! - can edit. Some of the these articles teach useful skills that everyone should learn; for example, operating a mini excavator, hanging a door, or kicking one down. Others fall in the line of hobbies - the site will teach you how to make a zoetrope, or a crop circle. The crop circle article suggests the best way to flatten cornstalks in a regular pattern (stand on a plank with a rope tied to it, and walk with a shuffling gait) and the best methods for alerting the media to the incipient threat of alien invasion (anonymous phone calls, presumably from a payphone). Be careful, though - if you bring a can of pop to drink while making a crop circle, be sure to pick up the container when you're finished! This is a dead giveaway.

Other articles deal with more nebulous tasks, like how to be a good person. (Step Two: Accept everyone around you as your brothers and sisters.) The secrets of political correctness are revealed in another article. All you have to do is examine the citizenship status (step 5), medical records (step 4) and and religious background (step 6) of every person you meet before speaking to them, and you're good to go! Unless, of course, you encounter someone who reads negative inferences into the words you choose (step 7), or who wishes to be referred to using special language of their own invention (step 8). In either case, the misunderstanding is your own fault, and you will probably be fired from your workplace (Warning 1) and become a social pariah (Warning 2).

But the articles get weirder. "How to Amuse Yourself When You're Home With Nothing to Do" is marketed toward bored children whose parents have left them alone in the house for half an hour. After exhausting the more obvious options ("5: Play with a not-so-jumpy pet, like a turtle." "9. Spend some time on your laptop/computer, that's always a good passtime.") the authors suggest harassing strangers ("13: Have a "hug-a-thon" by asking people that pass you on the street if they want a hug!"). Older children might enjoy the guide on How to Persuade Somebody that Religion is a Bad Thing - after selecting a likely target for conversion (step 1), and subtly shifting the topic of every conversation towards religion (step 2), you need only point out "some of the great facts about atheism. For example, state that religion puts people into groups." Repeat until your friends are all converted, or until they refuse to talk to you, whichever comes first.

My favourite, though, is the one on "How to Sing in Church Without Feeling Embarrassed," which should be mandatory reading for everyone, ever. Stop being self-conscious! Just sing!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Propositioning society

One of my recent concert announcements included the following exhortation:
Since music gives audible form to the intangible patterns of shared perceptual experience on which our common life depends, nothing less than the future of civilization may hang upon your efforts to promote organ recitals.
It was intended as a joke, of course. But I think there's something here that's important.

The issue is this: can all human knowledge be articulated in a propositional form? Or does our store of knowledge and experience include non-propositional knowledge, things that can never be expressed in the form of a statement?

I know, for example, that two and two are four, and that a piece of white phosphorus will ignite if I expose it to air. These are very different types of knowledge, but they're both propositional. However, I also know how to play the organ, which is at its core a non-propositional form of knowledge. There are any number of statements that might be relevant to my knowledge of how to play the organ (sit on the bench facing the keydesk; place your music on the stand with the right side up; extend your hands toward the keyboard with palms facing downwards, etc., etc.) but it's not clear that my ability to play the organ can be reduced to these statements. Imagine that a person was able to empirically describe every action that an organist must take in order to play a two-hour recital, but when asked to demonstrate their knowledge was unable to perform any of the actions they described: would we say that this person knew how to play the organ? Clearly not. The best we can manage is "This person knows a lot of information about how a person capable of playing the organ would play the organ," which in the final analysis is not enough to impress a paying audience.

Most of our knowledge is like this; it involves some propositional content expressed in the form of statements embedded in non-propositional content derived from our life experience. You may know that a piece of white phosphorus ignites in air, but do you know how to share this information with your friend using audible speech? You may know that two and two make four, but can you walk across the room without falling down? If not, it's going to be a long day.

All of this is interesting because our experience of music is one of the purest possible examples of non-propositional knowledge. In fact, it's not clear that anything about music can be expressed directly in a propositional form at all. One can certainly know a great many propositional statements about music, but none of them address the musical experience directly. Knowledge of the history, aesthetics or political context of a composition may affect our musical experience, but it's not itself the content of that experience. Likewise, learning music theory teaches us to analyze the musical score, which puts it at a substantial remove from the actual listening experience; at best, if the performance is faithful to the score, it might correlate to your analysis of the piece. If we try to describe the musical experience itself, we are forced to use metaphors ("lively," "hopeful," "sorrowful,") that seem to evoke the important aspects of that experience. And while this disjunction between academic theory and lived reality is familiar in many of the other arts, music has the additional disadvantage that the object of our musical experience is an intentional object (that is, an object that we've constituted ourself in our imagination) rather than a physical phenomenon (like a sculpture, painting, or a group of oddly-dressed people saying things in iambic pentameter). The result is that music is as far removed from the world of propositional statements as a human activity can possibly be.

Our experience of the world, then, necessarily depends on some combination of propositional statements and non-propositional knowledge. In some disciplines, like the natural sciences, propositional knowledge is clearly the most important; in others, like music, the essence of the art form seems to be wholly non-propositional. Healthy individuals and societies must accept that both ways of knowing are necessary to our existence, and allow for both in the makeup of our major institutions. In practice, however, since the rational madness of the Enlightenment, non-propositional knowledge always loses out - it's hard to justify why music is important, or what role tradition ought to play, when the answer expected (ie: a proposition expressing utilitarian value) is by nature foreign to the concept you're trying to defend. Yet these non-propositional aspects of experience - music, art, tradition, friendship, religious experience - are the ones that ultimately hold society together. When everything in human life has to be explained in propositional form and defended by a cost-benefit analysis, we lose something essential in our human nature. This, of course, is the mistake behind all radical politics - the assumption that everything in society is susceptible to rationalist analysis, that the world is essentially a puzzle to be solved, and that uniformly applying a single principle to everything in society will make all of our problems disappear. This doesn't work, and we prove it doesn't work every time we listen to a piece of music.

If all of this were true, of course, it would follow that artists and particularly musicians have the most to lose when traditional social mores are attacked. The context in which they work depends for its very meaning on a community of listeners who share a common reserve of non-propositional knowledge. Political radicalism, antitraditional ideologies, and other reductionist approaches to human life threaten this consensus, both by direct attack on the concept of "non-propositional knowledge" and by undermining the traditional institutions on which that knowledge depends. If musicians were to act according to their own self-interest, therefore, they ought to be known for their stalwart traditionalism, and their violent opposition to any forces that undermine social cohesion. Anyone who knows anything about musical history, however, is aware that this is not the case, and hasn't been for centuries - Beethoven was infatuated with Napoleon, Wagner was exiled from Germany after participating in an ill-conceived attempt at a revolution, Stravinsky was an admirer of Mussolini, and Webern explicitly endorsed the Nazi regime. The radical antinomian sentiments in much popular music since the 1960s are not a departure, but a continuation of the same trend. Should it be surprising that music is becoming an increasingly irrelevant part of our common life, when the very foundations of that common life are so little valued by musicians themselves?

Two points, then, come out of all this. Firstly, that economists are wrong: humans don't work toward their own self-interest. Very few people are capable of perceiving what actions ultimately benefit them - myself very much included - and most of us are probably continually undermining our own interests by ill-considered actions of various sorts. Secondly, that I am running out of procrastination methods and should get to work on my taxes.