Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving, 2014


Among the many gifts to education come via the internet–inexpensive books both used and new, sharing teaching resources, resurrecting forgotten books, and on and on–perhaps the greatest has been the ability to watch master classes and lectures. Everyone has enjoyed an eye-opening class or perky book which has piqued his interest in a topic, but there is something electrifying about a lecture in which you can see the erudition just pouring out of the speaker, the years of study now effortless bounty, summoned at will. Likewise the sight in a master class of a virtuoso tweaking a superb student's efforts into the beginnings of mastery, seeing the crossing of that threshold is inspirational.

Such education is the highlight, and perhaps if you'll permit me some uncharacteristic optimism, the redemption of YouTube. They contain not facts which could be reproduced in books or papers, but a profound and often intangible sense of the joy and greatness of the endeavor. Confining this list to the strictly musical variety, here are my Top Music Lectures and Master Classes.


Andras Schiff, on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas [YouTube]
Daniel Barenboim, on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas [YouTube]

Pinchas Zukerman, on Violin performance [YouTube]

John Tomlinson, on Singing Opera [YouTube]

Robert Levin on Composing Mozart [YouTube]
Carlos Kleiber, in Rehearsal [YouTube]

John Eliot Gardiner, Bach Cantata Pilgrimage [YouTube]
Robert Greenberg, on Everything [YouTube]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Review: Bachstock Marathon


Surprised the psychedelic vibe of Bachstock appealed to me? I am. The idea of naming a celebration of Bach's corpus of work–the apogee of spiritual, philosophical, and theoretical musical expression–after the deepest depths of sixties hippie-dom is not immediately attractive. The festival is more than its name, though, and there is little more rich than Bach, whose music WQXR has celebrated throughout November. Besides, and more charitably, I do like the idea of a season of Bach, of the music just filling the air for a time, and his music does in fact produce euphoria and despair, so you really could call it psychedelic.

The climax of the month-long festivities was Saturday's marathon of Bach's solo organ works at St. Peter's Church. From 7AM until midnight a troupe of organists consisting of Juilliard students and local organ directors led by organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs performed a nearly unbroken series of Bach's solo organ oeuvre. I managed to squeak into the 2:30 slot in which Benjamin Sheen, Assistant Organist at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, performed on St. Peter's Klais organ. If other of the day's organists cherry-picked the famous pieces like the F Major Toccata and Fugue and the Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor, Sheen had the pleasure and Herculean task to play a lesser known masterpiece, Bach's Third Clavier Übung.

Sheen brought a vital clarity to the pieces, from the more fingery works like BWV.688 to the austere grandness of BWV.678. A projector trained on the keyboardists hands showed helpfully for the eyes what could not have escaped the ears: the blistering complexity of some of the fugues, double and triple and variously complex. The program changed Bach's ordering of the pieces for a more traditional variation among large and small scale, fast and slow, but this did not diminish the pleasure of hearing various figures come and go in different guises. The pairs, however, which Bach wrote on the same chorales, one setting with pedals and the other for manuals alone, were performed together, a contrast which shows not only the fecundity of Bach's musical mind, but the patience which sees all ideas worked out to their utmost.

The orchestration was especially pleasing and refreshing, casting new light on pieces to which we have become perhaps too accustomed by our favorite recordings. How exciting to hear a familiar piece anew, waves once deep and ruddy now bright and clear. What shone forth most though, was the variety. Influences French, Italian, and German permeate this "most-consequential compositional project for the organ from the years of [Bach's] maturity" [1] alongside the Bachian array of polyphonic artistry, themes of every shape and length, and sizes from the little duets BWV.802-805 to the Trinity of BWV.552a.

Even though I had stopped in for a mere 75 minutes of the marathon–for the absolute steal of $10 admission–I caught the fervor of what was really a one-day festival. Yes, I could have lived without the kitschier element, the "I got your Bach" t-shirts and puns on the radio, but there was a lot of merry, expert music-making. Too I found it a pleasure to see a festival with its namesake at the center, unlike that of a certain Salzburg-born composer.  It may have only been one church and one radio station, but with queuing lines, people buzzing about, web streams, and Bach's glorious music contrapunting to the ends of the eternity, it felt like Bach was everywhere, if only for a little while, and that's a dear satisfaction in itself.


[1] Horn, Victora. "French Influence in Bach's Organ Works" in J.S. Bach as Organist. ed. Stauffer George and May, Ernest

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On Cars and Driving



Like many New Yorkers, I learned to drive later than my suburban counterparts. The delay owes in part to the ubiquity–if not efficiency or pleasure or reliability–of the city's public transportation as well as the density of metropolitan construction: when everything is close and you can go to and fro with relative ease, you're no so eager to incur the expense of a car. Too I lacked that adolescent distemper which seems to prise youths from home at the earliest possible moment. Lacking the impetus to escape, I settled, and working in the city, I naturally adopted the pedestrian antipathy toward drivers so common among New Yorkers. Antipathy, of course, in blatant indifference to the inconvenience I put upon friends and family to chauffeur me around. At any rate I learned to drive but several short years ago.

I admit to a certain trepidation about that examination. How infamous become the people who fail their road test, and what objects of scorn! What will people say if I fail, with my much vaunted knowledge? That I knew then and now without a doubt that each and every friend would have responded with charity mattered little when the instructor sat Sphinx-like in the passenger seat, recording my every error. Passing though I did, on the first try, when driving I have progressed but moderately beyond the anxiety I felt that day. My present concern though is less on of being judged than of harming.

Naturally most people don't live day-to-day in fear of their lives and like most people mortality is a fleeting philosophic concern to me, at best. I'm attentive to hazards and rather able to protect myself and avoid harm, and likewise I realize few people have the incentive to harm me. Yet put those same people in a car, with a few tons of steel and hundred horse power, and see how man is transformed.

On foot, we of course frequently bump into one another without much commotion or concern. It is even common for two people in attempting to avoid each other by stepping aside, continually to step into the other person's corrected trajectory, further stymieing each other in a comedy of manners. I always find that such mismatches buoy my spirits: how wonderful are we, so full of concern for our fellow men! Yet put us in cars and we would be shouting each other down, blaring our horns, and jockeying positions for the profitless patch of ground. Paragon of animals indeed!

The power of his car which he did purchase but did not, because he did not cultivate it himself, earn and which he therefore does not understand, is the Ring of Power on his finger. It magnifies his rage and avarice as it puts within reach otherwise inaccessible pleasure. Like the ring also, it can only be mastered by him who made it.

Man may possess many powers of speech, mind, and hand but these are all hard fought and in the suffering, in the vulnerability of learning, we grow to respect not only the skill we cultivate but also its fruits. Who learns to speak well learns to be moderate and not abuse, who learns to think quickly and discern learns patience, and who learns to gather wealth learns to be beneficent and liberal. Yet who buys a car learns no discipline but leaves himself to be seized with a mania, not to drive but be driven by a suddenly unfettered and untutored appetite. Multiple appetites in fact, and being appetites they can be sated but never filled. The motor vehicle 

The fact that there aren't more accidents is perhaps a reproach to my argument, as is the relatively affordable cost of insurance and the fact that roads aren't constantly tied in tangles of traffic. (Though they often are.) Too, much of my driving stress comes from the recklessness and brazenness of pedestrians, a brazenness which finds its origins in the certainty that judges and insurance adjusters will sooner find fault with the driver of two tons of combustion-propelled steel than the measly flesh and bones of the pedestrian. Timid drivers are of great danger to others as well, enraging speeders and moderate drivers alike. Just the thought of one nervous driver holding up a whole column of traffic boils my blood, as does the way in which the quite orthodox phenomenon of rain seems to throw some drivers into a confused tizzy. If we finally add the fact that clairvoyance and telepathy are now mandatory for all drivers, since if practice is any indication the use of turn signals is now optional, it's nothing short of extraordinary that there's anyone left alive at all.

I can seldom drive for five minutes, and sometimes not even around the corner, without witnessing behavior which is downright death-defying. I know not what fortune, skill, technology, or fate interferes with what seems to be certain catastrophe.

Yet the dangers and the variety of variables with which driving presents me is but one complaint, the other being that I find it unnatural and generally unpleasant to interact with the world by means of a car. It is natural and appropriate for man to interact with others by means of words and because of that need to learn to speak and write with skill. I enjoy the rules, traditions, and possibilities of discourse. Man being mobile, it is fitting and necessary to walk, and I do so with great pleasure. Yet when  I drive, for all the convenience it brings me and for all the possibilities laid open, I'm not at peace. I feel in a state of disequilibrium which ought not endure. When driving it is difficult to see people and they you, and it is hard to be courteous to others, however seldom the need may arise. (How precious is the wave of thanks!) Even with the windows down I can hear little but the buffet of air billowing by, and with the windows closed I can hear and smell nothing of my environment.

Worst of all is the way it temps me with easy power. Whatever skill I have of speech, any action must take some toll of effort. Every phrase must be turned, every argument structured, every twist of wit twined with foxy dexterity. Yet my car presents me with over 200 horsepower the ability to accelerate from 0-60mph in but a few seconds, all with the press of a pedal. Every word asks that I choose it with care lest I confuse or offend, but who cares about nameless, faceless drivers?

All of these admissions and admonitions seem a terrible betrayal of my car, to which I am irrationally attached. In it I enjoy a quietude and luxury far greater than most anywhere else I can find or afford. Its refined, conservative styling is, I hope, a reflection of its owner. I enjoy keeping it clean as I do my desk and books, with every manner of cloths and sprays. How the light glints off its speckled finish. How the dew beads on its waxed exterior. How I cracked the tire valve and watched it deflate before my eyes. Yet for all its inconveniences and burden, without it I feel stranded. Without it parked outside I feel constrained, even if I'm unlikely to go anywhere.

Like much of modern man's technology, the car is a much greater power than we realize. As such it requires discipline and sacrifice, and most of all prudence. Not exactly our strengths.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar

Directed by Christopher Nolan. 2014.

*spoiler alert*

Christopher Nolan may be Hollywood's golden boy right now, but it still took guts to make Interstellar. First, it has for some time been out of vogue to make a science fiction film which is not also an action flick. Audiences don't want quibbling scientists, esoteric terminology, and the slow journey of experimentation. Second, the boundary between science fiction and other genres is so blurred that audiences don't know what to expect from sci-fi. Should it be sci-fi horror, like Frankenstein and Alien, highbrow like Bladerunner, lowbrow like Independence Day, or pure action like Aliens? Should it be funny like Men in Black, or gadgety like I, Robot? Should Will Smith be involved at all? If it's pure sci-fi, writers still seem pressured to veer into the extremely implausible, scientifically suspect, or downright fantastic to get one over on audiences which demand a surprise finale. Finally, the wake of landmark sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and even lesser pictures like Jurassic Park is a tough channel for new movies to navigate. How much do you forage ahead and how much do you look back?

That leaves Interstellar in a tough situation, but the Nolans moderate a prudent course amongst their myriad options. Chief and most far reaching among these choices is Interstellar's balance between the impersonal, abstract mood of 2001 and the warm, intimate world of Solaris. Between these extremes we have Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a pilot-turned-farmer raising his family in the near future. Cooper's a former pilot but not a retired one, though, for in this future there is no more flight, spaceflight, or advanced technology of any kind. This future isn't one of whiz-bang gadgets and nightly leaps in technology, but one in which old technology is scavenged, where kids aren't encouraged to enrich themselves but to farm for survival because dust storms choke off crop after crop. This is no economic depression, but the death spiral of the human race. We see the depths of human despair when we learn that teachers and school text books teach that the moon landings were hoaxes, a lie born not out of conspiratorial theorizing but from an inability to reconcile present suffering with past greatness.

Cooper hasn't bought into the self-pity though, and for all his inability to provide more than a windswept farm for his kids, he's defiantly optimistic. He encourages his kids to learn, but most especially his daughter Murphy to read and follow scientific rigor. Nolan reinforces this theme of education by luxuriating in shots of books. Cooper's library–dusty from the storms but not from disuse–holds everything from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Stephen King, and we glimpse other familiar sights like Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein in the office of Cooper's mentor, Dr. Brand (Michael Caine.) The message is simple: mankind has to learn and struggle its way out of this. Brand is trying to do just that, and he and his underground NASA remnant have constructed a craft to seek worlds outside our solar system via a wormhole which has opened up near the locus classicus of sci-fi space phenomena: the rings of Saturn. The mission is simple too: find the habitable world, and in passing through the wormhole, gather the missing data Brand needs to send his space stations into orbit and save humanity.

By the time Cooper is ready to blast off, the stage is set. We've seen the hopelessness on earth so we can appreciate the sense of escape which flight will bring and we've seen enough dust and crops to marvel at the interstellar wonder of the spacecraft. We're in the hands of a prudent director setting up contrast and scale. Chiefly, though, Nolan sets up structure by giving us more than a teary farewell between Cooper and his daughter. Interstellar becomes a saga, a generational struggle, because it is Cooper's departure which drives Murphy's own research to save Earth: as Cooper seeks a new home, Murphy tries to get mankind a ticket there. The unfinished business between the two also sets up a simple tension whose resolution holds the rest of the movie together. It is also ultimately the endowment of the past which fuels Murphy's success.

The second act is structured with admirable simplicity: three heroic scientists have already been sent on one-way trips to three planets on the other side of the wormhole so they can report back on which is most habitable. Whoever lands on a hospitable planet will be contacted and rescued so colonization can begin. The other scientists will die alone. Cooper and his crew need to reconnoiter with those explorers who report back that their planets are habitable, but that's easier said than done since they orbit a black hole which Dr. Brand's team has named Gargantua. This celestial phenomenon brings me to two points: one of satisfaction, the other of irritation. First is my pleasure at the apt appellation Gargantua, a name which conveys not only enormity by onomatopoeia and its association with Rabelais' titular giant, but also means in Spanish throat–an appropriate name for a well devouring space and time. My irritation is with the ongoing phenomenon of astrophysicists in movies explaining basic laws to each other. Nothing takes me out of a movie with such speed as the suggestion that dialogue serves only to inform the audience and is otherwise redundant in the world of the narrative.

That minor quibble aside, this act is the broadening of the film to a scope which few achieve. It opens with a tense action scene of exciting brevity in which the team must visit one of the planets which is so close to the black hole that on it time passes more slowly. The result is that the crew, and everyone back on earth, will age years in what are mere hours to the away team. This could have seemed a gimmick, but the actors react with such honest horror when the mission goes overtime that we buy into the high stakes. We also buy into the tension because we are distracted by the exotic and hostile environment of crashing waves. The windswept Earth, for its dwindling bounty, seems to call us home from this inhospitable, waterlogged world. What really sets the alien tone, though, is a subtle and brilliant touch: the water is shallow enough that the crew can walk on it, yet there are around them giant waves. The mere incongruity of the sight, of its impossibility on Earth, tells us something is strange and amiss. This won't be our new home.

The second planet holds a different surprise, for the scientist sent here, Dr. Mann (played by the dependable and underrated Matt Damon) was the purported best of the one-way explorers, an inspiration by the bravery of his one-way journey of sacrifice. He was also privy to and supportive of Dr. Brand's secret: the planetary scouting mission was a sham and a cover. Knowing his research to be a failure, Dr. Brand's real bet on humanity rested in the frozen embryos stored on Cooper's ship. There would be no rescue for the people on Earth, but mankind would go on, in some way. Mann's descent into madness sets a new vista for the movie though, for his inability to cope with his own death and dead-end on his barren planet conflicts with his matter-of-fact indifference to the deaths of Earth's population. So afraid of his lonely frigid death, Mann faked the data he sent to Earth so that in their expectation of visiting a fertile new home for humanity, the team would visit Mann's planet and rescue him, when if he had reported the truth about its destitution, he would have died alone. Aside from the tragedy of foregoing a magnanimous, heroic sacrifice, Mann demonstrates the incongruity of being willing to put the abstract cause of humanity's future ahead of the lives on Earth, but not ahead of his own.

Beyond this heinous flaw, Mann's sabotaging of Cooper's intended return trip, leaving Cooper for dead on the planet, and reckless endangerment of the ship housing the embryos all show him to lack the mettle for the mission to save humanity. Still, Mann thinks he's the one to do it and launches into a soliloquy about the future which is promptly cut off by his deadly and disastrous docking with the ship. The damage leaves Cooper and Amelia, Dr. Brand's daughter, in a quandary: return home in failure or find a way to make their own one-way trip to the final planet. Cooper is driven to return home and fulfill that promise to his daughter, while Amelia is drawn to the final planet, where she hopes to find not only a habitable world but her love, the scientist sent to scout the planet. The contrast between their motives, love, and the impersonal, empirical quest to save humanity represented by Mann is the final and ultimately greatest contrast of the movie.

Earlier in expressing her desire to visit her love's planet first, Amelia waxes philosophical about love and it being "the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space." It's not Plato, but it voices the ancient conception of love as a force which acts upon and through us. It is a conception of understanding rooted in receptivity and affirmation of life, not discursive fact-crunching rooted in empiricism. This contrast between ratio and intellectus becomes the core of the movie.

Unwilling to return home to death and in defeat, Cooper hatches a plan to use the gravitational pull of Gargantua as a slingshot to send Amelia to her lover and his hopefully fertile planet and himself through the black hole to gather Dr. Brand's data. Love and an unwillingness to endure the death of loved ones removed the impossibility of these tasks which proved impossible for Dr. Mann, whose stony-hearted ratio, willing to sacrifice the human race, was able to calculate only his own life.
What was for Dr. Mann a mere Herculean effort, and a failure, was a superhuman struggle yet possible for Cooper and Amelia.

Cooper's fate takes him farther and further, though, for besides his sacrifice he has not given up on the scientific facts which are needed to save Earth. Unlike Dr. Brand who lost faith in his theory, and therefore himself, Cooper has faith in both. His motive, though, is not the rage at the dying of the light which motivated and ultimately failed Brand, but love for the light. It is a love which demands in addition to reason, faith, sacrifice, and wonder, all of which we find in Cooper as he enters Gargantua, the black hole swallowing up the light for which he struggles.

When in the black hole the secret of the gravity waves, which will send Brand's space stations into orbit, is revealed to Cooper, we see the ratio penetrated by intellectus: fuller understanding through reason magnified by faith and wonder. Cyclical too is the manner in which Cooper is able to communicate via those waves the information to his daughter, earlier in time of course, the existence of the waves, mankind's hope and survival. As reason has gone through wonder into greater understanding, man has gone through suffering not to Herculean apotheosis, but back to man. Like 2001, the end is not in sight, only the journey. The sense of hope and wonder achieved by 2001's final image of extraterrestrial rebirth is mirrored here by man's rebirth in life on the space station in the very same orbit as Kubrick's star child. The best of Interstellar's movie posters hints at this thread to the heavens.

Man's fragile skein through time and space is joined by Cooper through libraries which bookend the film. When Cooper reaches the black hole's tesseract of space and time from which he can communicate with Earth, he finds the portal to his daughter reaches to their library. From the tesseract, then, a shape which seems in progressing out of itself to recede into itself, man reaches back into himself, the same and yet progressed and enduring. Cooper does not remain in the seemingly perfected vita contemplativa implied by the nexus of space and time in the tesseract, but returns back home, having glimpsed the wisdom which plays throughout the universe.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sub Corde


Inset of Mercury exhorting Aeneas
Tiepolo, 1757
Of all the wisdom in antiquity which we find in science and philosophy, of all the treatises and speeches, sometimes the most potent lies in the simplest expressions. Latin in particular, with its literal and visceral expressions, seems to cut to the heart of meanings which are in English buried in metaphor and, especially today, analysis. A recent occasion brought reminiscence of Vergil.

As every man in every dispute, I sat certain of my rightness. On the throne of moral superiority–it is a crown hard won and easily ceded–I was poised to let lose a torrent of self-righteous complaint. Why should I not? One reason is that while man's desire for justice may have deep roots in indignation, a sense of righteous reaction to the undeserved has probably toppled more friendships than empires. How often, even when there is indeed injustice, is our displeasure at being aggrieved stronger than any sense of inequity? Any honest man would admit his pride is more easily wounded than his sense of social justice, else he would be up in arms all the time and not just most of it. In fact Aristotle writes that the worst evils–of injustice and folly–are the least felt since their presence causes no pain. Worse than the self-deception, though, is how quickly indignation gives way to anger, if there was any honest indignation in the first place.

Most among the emotions does anger affect man's judgment. I can feel its creeping presence like a shadow shading over my mind as my control recedes. There is to the experience of growing enraged truly a sense of encroaching otherness, as if one is being forced from one's mind. Greek and Latin have ἔκφρων, exanima, and insania, which all convey the sense of being out of oneself, out of one's wits or out of one's mind as we sometimes in English say. Yet the advancing darkness of anger is never new and alone, it seems, but bringing with it every other slight you have ever experienced, as if anger itself has a memory. Too we once had commonly in English the phrase cherish wrath, a reminder like μῆνιν and memorem iram that we cultivate our anger lest it grow soft. We don't really want to forget.

Yet when we put down our desire, the feeling is equally physical. On this one occasion of my frequent displeasure I managed silence. Something in the eyes and voice of my interlocutor brought upon me an instantaneous wave of pity and with a gulp I kept an uncharacteristic silence over my tongue. The immediate effect was a feeling deep in my chest and I thought of my Vergil: curam sub corde premebat. In Book IV of the Aeneid, Aeneas suppresses his desire to stay with Dido and pushes his care under his heart. It's so literal and clear, so Latin, and Roman. There is no obfuscating explanation or psychologizing. It is not a metaphor for overcoming one's emotion but a description of what it feels like to do it. We often think ourselves superior to the ancients, but it is no small bit of wisdom to call a thing what it is.

Of course in subsequent days I fell back to mortal stature, indulging my inclinations as do we all when uninhibited. When I do so indulge, though, there is a faint sense of defeat and a reminder of how heroic it felt to swallow my pride, however miniature was my success. We are not encouraged today to look at the ancient heroes as role models. The literature in which they reside is to be admired and their world studied and remembered, of course. Praised even. Too their deeds should, scholars admit, provoke discussions and debate, but I do not recall anyone ever suggesting their lessons should inspire action. Maybe we are reluctant to apply the lessons of their grand stories to our small lives, or perhaps heroes wait to be invoked and emulated until dark times.

Vergil's contemporary in his troubled time, Titus Livy said the purpose of his history was to furnish examples for imitation and avoidance. He added that he hoped to show
by what kind of men, and by what sort of conduct, in peace and war, the empire has been both acquired and extended: then, as discipline gradually declined, let him follow in his thoughts the structure of ancient morals, at first, as it were, leaning aside, then sinking farther and farther, then beginning to fall precipitate, until he arrives at the present times, when our vices have attained to such a height of enormity, that we can no longer endure either the burden of them, or the sharpness of the necessary remedies.
Perhaps in an age when the word self is appended with approbation to every activity, discipline, and occasion, and when the marketplace and government seem set to satisfy every whim, Aeneas of all the heroes should be welcome.