Roger Federer beat Djokovic in three sets in the Dubai semi-final, a great win for the grizzled 32 year-old grey beard, and an inspiration to one of his East Montpelier fans, who though feeling something less than 100% ready-for-prime-time himself, is planning his return to the podium next week.
Steady progress today, though I’m tired now and thinking of bed. I went up and own our spiral staircase 15 times (because they’re there) and I huffed and puffed into the “inspiration spirometer” that they gave me in the hospital to prove to myself and anyone who’s interested that my lung function is still in good shape. I paid ten – count ’em, ten – bills that I had been putting off for about a month.
I started reading Imperfect Harmony by Stacy Horn which was a gift to me by the members of the Burlington Choral Society. Stacy Horn sings in the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York City, and writes from the perspective of an amateur singer who is drawn to choral singing for a whole host of musical, social, personal, and spiritual reasons. I think the first few chapters – that’s as far as I’ve read – are absolutely spot on in describing the challenges and satisfactions of singing in a chorus and would heartily recommend the book to everyone.
All the members of the BCS signed the book, which makes it especially valued and appreciated. I also got a get well card from the Onion River Chorus with all their signatures. Handwriting has gone out of our lives to such an extent that to see the signatures of people who you know by sight and sound is to glimpse something very private, very meaningful.
My gift back to all who might read this post is this YouTube video of mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile singing a song he wrote called “Too Many Notes.”
Thank you for your good wishes and visits while I was in the hospital. I was discharged around noon today and have spent the last five hours either sleeping or looking for loose pants.
I had emergency abdominal surgery that revealed that a section of my small intestine had become blocked. The surgeon was able to manipulate my intestines by hand to remove the kinks; the very good news is that there was no diseased tissue, no tumor, and nothing to be taken out. No one can say why it happened.
I got very good care at Central Vermont Medical Center (CVMC). The surgeon was such a nice guy that I, at first, doubted that he could be a real surgeon – where was the necessary arrogance and impatience? But he was unfailingly generous with his time, and I hope that my quick recovery to date is an endorsement for his good work. The nursing staff varied in experience but the senior nurses were always on top of things. I had one particularly fine nurse who was able to give me the tools, both mental and medical, to deal with the transition from not feeling much post-operative pain (due to an epidural that was started during the operation) to a lot of pain as the epidural wore off.
As I waited for Susan to bring the car around to the entrance of the hospital after I had been discharged I read a legal notice that laid out the hospital’s obligation to treat any and all patients with the highest level of care regardless of their ability to pay. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to be in a position of absolute physical vulnerability as I was, know that there were doctors and nurses who could assist you, and be refused care.
As Susan pulled away from the entrance, I started sobbing. What a privilege to have that much care directed toward getting me back on my feet! For sure, I couldn’t have done it myself. I am in the land of Big Gratitude.
I am in hospital recovering from some unexpected surgery and not as compos mentis as I would like, so there will be a hiatus in a Year of Guys until I recover.
My mother subscribed to The New Yorker magazine, so I grew up with it around the house. I didn’t read the articles, but enjoyed the cartoons, which probably had a role in introducing me to what “educated adults” found funny, or at least ironic. Eventually, I began reading the articles, the writers singing to me like sirens from another shore, all the more seductive because their words consorted with the almost-pornographic advertisements for luxury goods. (Being then, as now, of a different economic stratum than the one the advertisers were interested in, I developed some high-minded resentment to the basic economic premise of the magazine, tinged inevitably with both envy and guilt. I still have it to some extent, but The New Yorker has worn me down; I’m inured to the ads now.)
But the writing was, and is, so good! So, too, the content and the editorial hand on the tiller, with the conspicuous exception of the exasperating upper-middle-class suburban ennui fiction, which drove me crazy in the 1980s and 90s. Strangely, for a relationship between man and magazine, once hooked, I became proprietary about its fortunes. Following the long editorial tenure of William Shawn, I wrung my hands with worry over the magazine’s identity and economic instability in the Robert Gottlieb (1987-1992) and Tina Brown (1992-1998) eras, and have rejoiced in the resurgence and clout of the magazine under the editorial leadership of David Remnick.
So a big shout-out to The New Yorker, which tickles my brain with almost every issue. The current issue, the anniversary issue with Eustace Tilley outlined in the lit windows of a New York City skyscraper, contains two articles that are a nice foil for each other. One, by longtime New Yorker “legacy” and baseball nut Roger Angell, is entitled “This Old Man,” and is a beautifully-written, pithy personal narrative of being 93 years old. The other (that I am going to cite) is by Adam Gopnik, one of the very best non-fiction writers in The New Yorker stable, and is a review of books about atheism, entitled “The Frankly Faithless.”
The Roger Angell piece captures the satisfying acceptance of a 93 year-old’s necessarily restricted life: “The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures [“a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses”] doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming.”
Adam Gopnik’s piece, by contrast, is one of intellectual restlessness, true to the imperatives his generation. (Gopnik is 57.) “If atheists underestimate the fudginess of faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt.” In chronicling the rise of New Atheism, Gopnik cites the rise of evolutionary biology as the dominant science narrative of the last 20 years, replacing physics, which in its cosmic language could “persist without actively insulting the language of faith.” Evolutionary biology, by contrast, “makes specific claims about people, and encounters much coarser religious objections.”
Gopnik quotes John Updike, who, despite writing a lot of the kind of New Yorker fiction that I never liked, became quite the sage in his last years: “The power of materialist science to explain everything – from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms, and their sub-microscopic elements – seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the human mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires, and – may we even say – illusions composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize, and placate these.”
My reading of Updike is that he is equivocal on the question of whether religion is a faith system or a set of beliefs. I, for one, believe that religious feeling is not contingent on a set of beliefs. For me, appreciation of the miracle of emergent, self-organizing systems is quite rich enough to sustain religious feeling. (See the contributions of one of my guy heros, Buzz Holling, introduced in this blog post.)
And I also agree with John MacMurray’s that the dualism of mind and matter is at odds with reality and fails to appreciate the organic properties characteristic of life. As MacMurray put it, “If the world consists exclusively of mental things and material things, where do cabbages come in?”
More on this tomorrow, but for today, encomiums (now there’s a $5 college word!) to The New Yorker for once again firing my intellectual engines.
Disgusting weather today. This morning I watched a neighbor shoveling snow off his roof in an out-and-out downpour. I really felt for him.
The last time the thermometer stayed above freezing for a couple of days was in mid-January and I blessed the blogosphere with a Manny Machado highlight video.
This time, it’s Roger Federer’s turn. This 6:16 YouTube video shows Roger at his absolute best, turning points where his opponent clearly – almost – had the point won, into points for Roger, by virtue of his ability to spin tennis straw into gold.
It’s embarrassing how happy this make me.
This morning’s photo of the rioting in Kiev –
(Yannis Behrakis /Reuters/Landov)
– is an eerie, discomfiting reminder of one of the iconic images from the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II:
Here’s an image of Independence Square in Kiev in better times, courtesy of visittoukraine.com:
Could picturesque Montpelier, Vermont –
– ever see smoke from fires set by protesters? Of course it could. Though historically the danger has been higher from flood –
– and the prospect feels remote at this moment, things could change. Here’s an image from the “Occupy” protests in 2011:
One of the best things about music is the way it connects us to history. Every rehearsal with the Burlington Choral Society of François Joseph Gossec’s Grande Messe des Morts, which was sung to honor the dead after the Storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789, puts us in the midst of the revolutionary fervor, revolutionary danger.
The music excites me viscerally, but it’s as close to the real thing as I ever want to be.
It took all my willpower yesterday to leave out of my “Life as a fugue” post an amusing (if revoltingly sexist) quote from the Preface of the second edition of Bach’s Art of the Fugue. As described by BBC3 commentator Simon Heighes in an interview with Lucie Skeaping, the Preface was written by “a Bach Family friend” Friedrich Marpurg (1718-1795) who extols the virtues of fugues by saying that “fugues are ‘manly’ and modern composers should learn to write them and avoid the ‘hoppity melodification of fashionable music’ which, Marpurg says, is merely ‘womanish rubbish.'”
Well! (The Wikipedia article on Marpurg notes that, “Marpurg’s quarrelsome disposition and his enthusiasm for public polemics made him many enemies.” Are we surprised?)
Manly music. What might that be? I argued yesterday that fugues, by virtue of their their abstract conception and somewhat rule-bound working out, were similar to the way human DNA gets expressed in life – which is to say in both male and female genders, with a lot of variation.
On the talkclassical.com website I saw this ridiculous list of composers “defined” by the writer as being essentially masculine or feminine:
Bach – Masculine
Beethoven – Masculine
Mozart – Feminine
Mendelssohn – Feminine
Brahms – Masculine
Chopin – Feminine
Liszt – Masculine
Mahler – Masculine
Schoenberg – Masculine
Weber – Feminine
Holst – Masculine
Korsakov – Feminine
Rachmaninov – Masculine
Schumann – Masculine
Ravel – Masculine
Debussy – Feminine
Delius – Feminine
Elgar – Feminine
Scriabin – Feminine
Sibelius – Feminine
There is no denying the historical dominance of the male perspective in classical music up to around 1985, but the situation has changed radically in the last 30 years. Where men used to predominate as composers, instrumentalists (especially soloists), and singers, women have dramatically increased their numbers and status, and now, I believe, exert a greater influence over the future of classical music than men.
Why has this happened? I think the crudest (and saddest) explanation for this is that there is less money and status in classical music than there was 30 years ago, and women have historically been paid less for their artistry than men. With reduced money and status associated with classical music, men are choosing other socially-ambitious, more financially-rewarding careers.
Another explanation may be that men fear and resent gender equality (or male inferiority). As the number and power of women in classical music increases, more and more men are getting out-competed by equally-talented, but hungrier and better-trained women.
Given the recent great and rapid change in gender status within classical music, it is difficult to argue that there is any reality to gender essentialism in classical music. (Wikipedia: “In gender studies…, the basic proposition that men and women are essentially different continues to be a matter of contention… A claim that gender is socially constructed probably means that gender, as currently understood, is not an inevitable result of biology, but highly contingent on social and historical processes. In addition, depending on who is making the claim, it may mean that our current understanding of gender is harmful, and should be modified or eliminated, to the extent possible.”)
But if there is no significant essentialism in the performance of classical music, I think one can sometimes detect (or am I imagining?) a male or female sensibility in music composition. Not in something as obvious as “manly music” or “girlie music,” but in the way the composer creates and uses musical elements that define themselves by contrast, in the same way that the Taoist visual symbol of Yin and Yang juxtaposes equal but independent and interdependent male and female influences.
In any event, I am a happy man in an increasingly women’s profession (yang within yin, kind of a 1:30 pm kind of guy).
On a recommendation from my friend Carolyn Morton I’m listening to a program on Bach’s Art of the Fugue originally broadcast yesterday on the BBC3’s Early Music Show. (There are 5 days remaining to listen to this particular show from the BBC3 website.)
It is deeply satisfying. The host, Lucie Skeaping, is spinning discs and chatting with an early music expert named Simon Heighes about Art of the Fugue. Heighes comments that “Fugal writing was considered by Bach and his contemporaries to be sort of timeless, really, standing above and beyond fashion…”
Fugues are well suited to winter mornings. They are introspective, austere, intellectually rigorous, and not sensuous in the way that we generally understand the word “sensuous.” (It was interesting to learn on this radio program that in the second edition of Art of the Fugue published in 1752, the engraver may have felt that the austerity may have need some softening. Heighes tells us that “on the blank pages that are not used up by music, the engraver has put a whole garden of flowers. Absolutely beautiful. I think it’s the most florid of all his publications.”)
I have always loved fugues and, counter-intuitively perhaps, feel as if they are the musical form that most closely mirrors human life.
Indulge me in this comparison. Fugues are typically constructed with a distinct principal subject, a contrasting counter subject, and some “connective tissue.” The main thematic elements may be turned upside down, subjected to rhythmic or melodic compression or expansion, or as many other kinds of manipulation as the composer’s imagination can bring to bear on the subject material. To state the obvious, in fugues, the better the material and the greater the skill of the composer in realizing the potential of the material, the more interesting the fugue.
So too in life. Think of DNA as the “fugue subject” of a human life. One’s DNA gives a person’s life the strong forward impulse and characteristic personality profile that is then subjected to all sorts of manipulations by the environment in which you grow. Dominant genes, easily expressed, are the features by which most people recognize you, but there are subtle genetic influences, again influenced by environment, that provide interesting contrasting counter-subjects – talents, vulnerabilities, personality quirks – that combine to create the complexity of a fully-realized human life. The result is not something that we would call merely beautiful or handsome, or smart or clever, but something that we recognize as the beautiful, complex creation of nature.
So it is with Art of Fugue, which for most listeners is not beautiful in the sensuous way that a simple song is, but satisfies as a evocation of the infinite variety in music, and as a mirror of ourselves in nature.
Organist Herbert Tachezi’s performance of Art of Fugue is a fine one, available on YouTube here.
Yesterday’s post was about the power of storytelling and the power relationship between story (fiction) and truth (facts). I am the first to admit that I am not breaking new ground here. No sane person has ever denied the power of story in history to supersede and obscure truth. The question is, who cares? Or perhaps, why should we care?
The answer is that everyone should care, because power accrues to those who control the story. Think politics. Think business and advertising. Think religion. Think justice and our legal system. Think Hollywood and all the talent and money that goes into movies. Power, money and influence accrue to those who tell the best story.
To a literalist like me, it is disconcerting to read in a report from NPR that a National Science Survey found that 1 in 4 Americans believe the Sun orbits the Earth, and that only 48 percent said “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” That means that for a majority of Americans, a story about how humans have become the dominant species is more important than the factual, scientific record showing the link to other animals. That’s scary, because it suggests that a majority of Americans are more likely to respond to other good stories about what might threaten our species. We may have as much to fear from an escalation of stories as we do from an escalation of weapons.
In appreciation of the power of a good story (and in pursuit of power, money, and influence), I am trying to become a better storyteller. The problem is it doesn’t come naturally. Born and raised by scientist parents in the 1950s and 60s, I grew up believing that the scientific method was the gold standard for judging fact and fiction. Dragnet sergeant Joe Friday’s “Just the facts, ma’am,” could have been our mantra.
What’s interesting is that my belief in the scientific method doesn’t protect me from the power of a good story. For instance, I tend to take people’s word for things, and I tend to take facts presented to me as generally being presented by a disinterested source. This makes me a total sucker for the clever sequencing or manipulation of facts. For instance, I am terrible at guessing the outcomes of thrillers or “whodunits,” where the artful presentation of clues by the author or filmmaker is designed to lead you astray. Once a story gets planted and takes root, it requires tremendous energy to pull it up.
About ten years ago there was an article in The New Yorker that described how leaders in the Johnson Administration consistently disregarded factual information they were receiving from military officials in Vietnam that described in irrefutable terms how badly the war was going from the American perspective. This was “knowledge,” but instead of acknowledging it at such, and acting upon the information in a rational manner, the Johnson Administration clung to their beliefs about how the war was supposed to go. The author of the article, Nicholas Lehman, summed up the situation in the last sentence of the article: “It’s not what we know, but what we believe that makes all the difference.”
Stories and beliefs are truly powerful, more powerful than facts and knowledge. For those of us who believe that we are objective and act only upon the facts, it important to be humble about where the power really lies. It lies with the storytellers.