Archive for July, 2008

A philosophical clerihew

July 28, 2008

Not my own; I came across it tonight while reading Jacques Barzun.  This is just great:

G.W.F. Hegel
Invented the bagel.
He liked its peculiar density.
(His prose has the same propensity.)

If these walls could speak

July 28, 2008

Autobiography of a Cathedral
Louis Howland (The Century Co., 1927)
184 p. First reading.

There are so many good books in the world; it is a pity to spend time reading poor ones. On the other hand, when once I have begun a book I find it difficult to set it aside until I have seen it through to its conclusion. Thankfully, this book was not very long.

In my defence, I think you will agree that the book’s title has promise. I had mentally paired it with Fernand Pouillon’s novel The Stones of the Abbey, which is about the construction of a medieval Cistercian abbey as told through the eyes of its architect. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to tell the same story from the point of view of the building? Cathedrals are marvellous places, and the old ones (the ones most inclined, one assumes, to write autobiographies) have stood as silent witnesses to the whole breadth of the human drama through the generations, and bear within their own structure many marks of that history. In the right hands, such a story could yield good fruit.

As is so often the case, my expectations were wide of the mark. This book should with greater justice have been called Meditations of a Cathedral, or even Meditations of a Fairly Faithful Anglican Layman, Related to the Reader by Means of a Quaint Conceit. There is no narrative — the unnamed cathedral who speaks is less than 50 years old, and hasn’t much to tell in that regard — so instead we are treated to a series of ruminations on religious subjects such as Sin and Crime, Heresy and Orthodoxy, Modernism and Medievalism, Laughter and Tears, Peace and Forgiveness, Humour, and so on. Even this could have turned out alright, but I’m afraid our author is of a somewhat pedestrian cast of mind, and there is little here to lay a serious claim on one’s attention. At its best — in a late chapter when the cathedral dreams itself several centuries into the future — it rises to a worthwhile meditation on the endurance of Christian faith and culture, and of the cathedral’s role in embodying and proclaiming that faith. But mostly this is inoffensive, mildly charming, and largely forgettable.

The most interesting reading is between the lines. The cathedral is genial and mild-mannered almost to a fault, but does manage to scrape together some high-dudgeon for “the Fundamentalists”. These are the people who are devoted to Scripture and tend to read it literally. Fair enough, such readings are often wrong-headed, but one should choose one’s enemies as carefully as one chooses one’s friends, and there may be fouler things than Fundamentalists stalking the English countryside. Our cathedral is high on the “nobility” and “beauty” of the Anglican tradition, but reserves a certain disdain for those who treat doctrine seriously. Without wishing to oversimplify, I suspect that in this elevation of the aesthetic over the doctrinal,  which in my experience is not uncommon among Anglicans, one perceives the seeds of the troubles presently brewing at Lambeth.

Louis Howland apparently wrote several other books, yet I note that, of the nearly half-million members of LibraryThing, I am the only one who has even one of them on his shelf. This inspires in me thoughts on the vanity of this life in which we are like grass that the wind blows away. I will keep the book.

Sunday night cello suite

July 27, 2008

This past week I reviewed the contours of my classical music collection, and found that I have more music by J.S. Bach than by anyone else, and that the compositions of which I have the most versions are his Suites for solo cello.  It seems fitting, therefore, to post a selection from one of these suites tonight.  Here is the wonderful French (though Canadian-born) cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras playing the “Prelude” and “Allemande” movements from Suite No.3. (Duration: 8 min.)

My digital music collection: Classical music

July 25, 2008

Yesterday I reviewed a few details about my now-digital popular music collection.  In this post I look at my classical collection.

I started to become interested in classical music about ten years ago, and either because I had too much money as a graduate student, or just because I didn’t spend any of it on beer, my collection grew by leaps and bounds.  Today it covers most of the core repertoire (certain exceptions are noted below), and a good deal of the “non-core” repertoire that most interests me.  To be honest, I have far too much music; it would take me an awfully long time to listen to it all.  Still, to have all of this music in digital format and accessible with a few keystrokes is really wonderful.

I have scanned my CDs at a relatively high bit-rate (192 kbs).  Some contend that serious music-lovers don’t debase the music by digitizing it, even at a high bit-rate.  I make a distinction: there are music-lovers who are music-lovers, and there are music-lovers who are audiophiles.  I am firmly in the former camp, and I really don’t mind.

Here are some interesting (to me) facts about my classical music collection:

Total Duration: 80.4 days

Top Ten Composers, by Duration

10. Claudio Monteverdi (43.2 h): Mainly madrigals, operas, and, to my surprise, seven recordings of his monumental Vespro della Beata Vergine, 1610.
9. Franz Schubert (48 h): A full cycle of his piano sonatas (Kempff), along with many lieder and chamber recordings.
8. Benjamin Britten (48 h): Most of the operas, many discs of choral and vocal music, two recordings of the mighty War Requiem.
7. Dmitri Shostakovich (49 h): Piano and chamber music, together with two full symphony cycles (Barshai; Haitink), and two (nearly) complete string quartet cycles (Emerson SQ; Borodin SQ).
6. Anton Bruckner (51 h): Symphonies, mostly, including three full cycles (Jochum / Berlin Philharmonic; Tintner; Celibidache).
5. Gustav Mahler (53 h): A few recordings of the songs, but mostly symphonies, including two full symphony cycles (Chailly; Gielen).
4. Ludwig van Beethoven (70 h): Symphonies, including one cycle (Karajan, 1963), three string quartet cycles (Quartetto Italiano; Talich SQ; Busch SQ); piano sonatas.
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (96 h): One full symphony cycle (Pinnock), plus piano sonatas, string quartets, and lots of opera!
2. Anonymous (127 h): Good old anonymous nearly topped the charts.  He contributes mostly chant and other monophonic melodies.
1. Johann Sebastian Bach (146 h): The Passions, Mass in B minor, the keyboard works, a complete cycle of organ music (Herrick), seven recordings of the Goldberg Variations (Gould (x2), Perahia, Leonhardt, Hewitt, Schiff, Egarr), and a whopping ten recordings of the cello suites (Casals, Schiff, Wispelwey, Starker, Rostropovich, Isserlis, Linden, Fourier, Mørk, Queyras).  When you’re the best, you’re the best.

Distribution by Period

Medieval (8%)
Renaissance (13%)
Baroque (15%)
Classical (9%)
Romantic (22%)
Modern (33%)

This distribution surprises me; I would have expected a greater weight on earlier music.  I am especially affronted by the prevalence of romantic music, which is the period I like least, but on reflection I expect its bulk is due to the sheer volume of music produced by Schubert, Bruckner, Liszt, and Wagner.  I am also a little startled to see that nearly one-third of my music is “modern” — roughly speaking, “since 1900”.  But on reflection it makes sense: there are a fair number of modern composers whose music I greatly enjoy and have collected with enthusiasm: Britten, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Pärt, Messiaen, and others.  Part of me wishes that the Medieval and Renaissance periods were better represented, but their slender weight is a fair reflection of the relative amount of this music that has been recorded.  There just isn’t that much of it.

Distribution by Genre

Chamber Music (11%)
Choral (27%)
Concerto (4%)
Solo Instrument (17%)
Opera (10%)
Orchestral [non-symphonic] (7%)
Symphonic (14%)
Solo vocal (11%)

This is roughly what I would have expected.  Choral music is my favourite genre, and it is the best represented.  In fact, vocal music of one sort or another makes up nearly half of my collection (by duration).  I think that value would be considerably lower for most music collectors.

Most Obvious Gaps

Beethoven: Piano Concerti – There are five of them, and I don’t have a single recording of a single one.
Bach: Brandenberg Concerti – Why I have never acquired a recording of these pieces is not clear to me, but I have by now acquired a kind of affection for this gap, and I’m reluctant to close it.
Dvorak: Symphonies – There are nine of them, several of which are much beloved, but I haven’t any of them.
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire – Well, maybe I’ve been avoiding it.

My digital music collection: Popular music

July 24, 2008

About two years ago I bought one of those devices.  I was at first tentative about its use, and only transferred certain CDs onto the computer.  I soon found, though, that I enjoyed being able to search and sort the music with such ease, and I liked being able to pull up alternate versions of songs or pieces to easily compare them, and I even enjoyed listening to the thing.  Eventually I decided to bite the bullet, or kick the bucket, or take the leap, or whatever the appropriate metaphor is.  I decided to convert my entire music collection into digital format. For six or eight months prior to our wedding I worked slowly but surely on the effort.  I have a fairly large music collection, and its digital footprint has dwarfed the capacity of my device.  Nonetheless, I did manage to finish the job, and today I want to sit back and survey the results for a few moments.

Since there is a fairly natural division between popular and classical music, today I focus on the popular music, and will look at the classical subsequently. Here are a few interesting (to me) statistics and facts:

Total duration: 19.9 days

Total number of songs: 7259

Top 10 Artists, by duration

10. Richard Buckner (5.7 h; 105 songs; 8 albums).
9. King’s X (7 h; 86 songs; 6 albums)
8. Leonard Cohen (7.2 h; 93 songs; 8 albums)
7. Daniel Amos (7.3 h; 127 songs; 9 albums)
6. The 77s (7.8 h; 97 songs; 7 albums)
5. Johnny Cash (8.6 h; 162 songs; 7 albums)
4. The Louvin Brothers (10.4 h; 232 songs; 9 albums)
3. Tom Waits (28.8 h; 480 songs; 27 albums)
2. Van Morrison (40.8 h; 562 songs; 40 albums)
1. Bob Dylan (52.8 h; 746 songs; 49 albums)

Clearly, my collection is dominated by that last big three; they run far ahead of the pack, and so they should.

Top Five Most Played Songs

5. “Nothing Can Stop Me”, Buddy Miller (from Poison Love)
4. “Another’s Sorrow”, Greg Brown (from Songs of Innocence and Experience)
3. “Wilderness”, Peter Case (from Torn Again)
2. “I Wanna Be In the Cavalry”, Corb Lund (from Horse Soldier!)
1. “Avalon of the Heart”, Van Morrison (from Enlightenment)

Longest Album Name: Sinead O’Connor, She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide under the Shadow of the Almighty

Longest Song Name: P.D.Q. Bach, “The Short-Tempered Clavier – Preludes and Fugues in All the Major and Minor Keys Except for the Really Hard Ones”  [I suppose this could, and maybe should, be classified as classical music, but in my books it isn’t.]

Longest song: Richard Buckner, “The Hill” (34:03).  The whole album is one track; it’s a short album, but a long song.

This has been most enjoyable (for me).  In a day or two I’ll post something about my classical collection.

Finally, a candidate to endorse

July 22, 2008

Like most of the world, we Canadians watch the American election process with interest.  I’ve had a hard time getting excited about either of the leading contenders, but now it seems a ruggedly independent dark horse has entered the race.  Rejoice, Symparanekromenoi!  Here, finally, is the man for us.

[Hat-tip: Korrektiv]

Sunday night wedding dance

July 20, 2008

A few people have asked about the song we had for our first dance as a married couple.  We went back and forth about it for the longest time — or, more accurately, we cast about aimlessly for the longest time.  There are long lists of “popular wedding dance songs”, but none of them appealed to us.  My wife doesn’t have much of an interest in music, so she couldn’t think of one; I know quite a lot of music, but it turns out that most of my favourite songs are about German dwarves, dead soldiers, and murders.  A few days before the wedding, I bethought me of this song: “These are the Days”, from Van Morrison’s album Avalon Sunset.  It’s got a nice, easy tempo, and the lyrics, though not perfect, do make reference to summer nights, dancing, love, and a wedding (the wedding at Cana, to be precise).  So we went with it, and I think we made a good choice.

[UPDATE: Audio removed at the request of Van’s publisher.  You’ll just have to buy the record.]

These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there’s only future
There’s only here, there’s only now

Oh your smiling face, your gracious presence
The fires of spring are kindling bright
Oh the radiant heart and the song of glory
Crying freedom in the night

These are the days by the sparkling river
His timely grace and our treasured find
This is the love of the one magician
Turned the water into wine

These are days of the endless dancing
Long walks on the summer night
These are the days of the true romancing
When I’m holding you oh, so tight

These are the days by the sparkling river
His timely grace and our treasured find
This is the love of the one great magician
Turned water into wine

These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart


July 18, 2008

The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas
Thor Heyerdahl (George Allen & Unwin, 1950)
235 p.  First reading.

This book relates the true story of how, in the late 1940s, six Norwegians sailed a balsa-wood raft across the South Pacific, from Peru to the Polynesian Islands.  It is a terrific tale.  Their craft was constructed from nine large balsa trunks lashed together with rope, with a small cabin and a sail above.  This sail was their sole means of motion; they set to sea dependent entirely to “the wind that blows where it will” — in more ways than one, one is tempted to say.  The journey lasted nearly three months before they successfully came aground on the Raroia reef of French Polynesia, having covered a distance of nearly 7000 km.

Their encounters with marine life are my favourite parts of the story.  There are no major shipping lanes through the South Pacific, so you can imagine that their presence was something of a novelty for the creatures around them.  They reported nearly daily encounters with dolphins and sharks (and they were not above using the former as bait to snare the latter), and, very conveniently, would awake each morning to find flying fish lying on deck, ready for breakfast.  They encountered the rarely seen whale shark, and were the first to document seeing a live specimen of Gempylus, a nasty piece of work that came aboard at night and tried to snack on their feet.  Speaking of night, my skin crawled to read that each crew member carried a machete to bed to defend themselves against attacks from giant, deep-water octopi.  Mercifully, they didn’t need them.

The sense of isolation out on the water was intense.  They saw no ships, no birds.  They did carry a short-wave radio on board in order to broadcast weather conditions, and occasionally they were able to make contact with a radio enthusiast in the Americas.  (When their interlocutors asked where they were, they were usually disbelieved.)  Heyerdahl writes of how the night sky became as familiar as an old friend, the stars their vivid but silent companions.

They were endangered only a few times during the voyage.  The raft held together suprisingly well, and because it was just a platform comprised of logs, entirely without a hull, they had no need to bail water — waves simply washed through the boat like water through a fork.  In the later part of their journey they did encounter a number of storms, but the Kon-Tiki rode through them bravely.  The height of danger came as they completed their journey, for the wind and the currents brought them to an island surrounded, at some distance, by a coral reef.  The ocean waves heaved against the reef, with powerful currents sucking downward as each wave receded, only to be thrust against the coral once again.  Were the sailors to fall into the water, they would be drowned or ground to a pulp against the abrasive coral. Heyerdahl’s description of their preparations and ordeal is gripping. The raft somehow managed, after tense minutes, to land atop the coral, though it was destroyed in the process. All survived without serious injury.

The motive for this expedition was anthropological.  Thor Heyerdahl believed, on the basis of technological, linguistic, and mythological similarities, that the Polynesian Islands had been populated, in around 500 AD, by tribes from Peru.  The theory faced a serious objection in the form of the doubtful possibility of the journey being completed successfully with the characteristic Peruvian boats.  The Kon-Tiki expedition was launched to demonstrate its possibility.  Apparently, however, despite the success of the expedition, this theory is still not favoured among anthropologists, who prefer an eastward migration from Asia.  Their journey makes for a great story nonetheless.

In 1951 a film was made about the Kon-Tiki expedition.  It won the Academy Award for documentary feature that year.  I would like to see it someday.

Chesterton and the New Yorker

July 15, 2008

The current issue of The New Yorker includes a lengthy essay (not available online) by Adam Gopnik on our man Chesterton. The table of contents promises a reflection on “The genius of G.K. Chesterton”, which is an honest and sensible topic for an essay, but turning to the article itself we are troubled to see the promise overshadowed by a doubt: “The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton”, it says. He is such a jolly man, Mr. Gopnik. What, pray tell, is the matter?

In fact, the essay doesn’t let the trouble entirely overpower the genius.  It is a largely appreciative and frequently insightful piece, with special attention given to several of Chesterton’s best-known works: The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man who was Thursday, and the Autobiography.  Gopnik has a real feel for the spirit that animated Chesterton, focusing in particular on his love of the small and local and the eminence he gave to imagination in rightly interpreting experience.

“All my life I have loved edges; and the boundary line that brings one thing sharply against another,” he writes. “All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window. To the grief of all grave dramatic critics, I will still assert that the perfect drama must strive to rise to the higher ecstasy of the peepshow.” The two central insights of his work are here. First, the quarrel between storytelling, fiction, and reality is misdrawn as a series of illusions that we outgrow, or myths that we deny, when it is a sequence of stories that we inhabit.  The second is not that small is beautiful but that the beautiful is always small, that we cannot have a clear picture in white light of abstractions, but only of a row of houses at a certain time of day, and that we go wrong when we extend our loyalties to things much larger than a puppet theatre. (And this, in turn, is fine, because the puppet theatre contains the world.)

Why is Chesterton’s genius “troubling”?  If a man loves local traditions and ways of life, he’s going to be suspicious of outsiders.  A devotee of localism cannot also be devoted to multiculturalism.  Fair enough, I suppose.  If you’re striving hard to be a good global citizen, Chesterton may well trouble you.  But I have the feeling that the man himself would put you at ease, and welcome you to a pint of good English ale.  There is something expansive about this narrowness.

Gopnik is also troubled by Chesterton’s Catholicism — not, as you might expect, simply because he was a Catholic, but rather, if I understand correctly, because he was such a happy one. He just liked the Church too much.  Gopnik turns a nice phrase, calling him “a Pangloss of the parish”, but then ruins the effect by making the miserly claim that no-one could possibly admire both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi in the way that Chesterton claimed to. What a very odd thing to say.  Did not all three of them share a basic devotion to the foundational goodness of creation?  It seems grounds enough for a fraternal bond.

But the really troubling thing about Chesterton’s troubling genius, says Gopnik, is that he was a Jew-hater.  This is not the first time I have heard it claimed that Chesterton was an anti-Semite, yet in all my reading — and I have read a fair bit of his work — I have yet to come across the damning passages.  When I saw that Gopnik was raising the charge again, I sat up in my chair and leaned forward with genuine interest.

Alas, the evidence he provides is pretty thin.  As a child Chesterton defended a Jewish boy from being bullied, but then described the boy as having a “hooked nose”.  For shame.  Later in life he noted that Jews, even those who had been in England for many years, were like foreigners.  This is “the Jewish problem”.  Yet it is not clear if this problem is with the Jews, or for the Jews.  Which, after all, is more anti-Semitic: to view the Jews as a people set apart, or to consider them as being just like everybody else?  In any case, this is hardly enough to justify a statement like this: “Chesterton wasn’t a fascist, and he certainly wasn’t in favor of genocide, but that is about the best that can be said of him”.  No, Mr. Gopnik, it is very far from the best that can be said.

Against the charge of anti-Semitism, I offer a few passages for your consideration.  Gopnik claims that Chesterton’s antipathy to the Jews was racial, not cultural, but Chesterton had this to say about racism:

About all those arguments affecting human equality, I myself always have one feeling; which finds expression in a little test of my own. I shall begin to take seriously those classifications of superiority and inferiority, when I find a man classifying himself as inferior. It will be noted that Mr. Ford does not say that he is only fitted to mind machines; he confesses frankly that he is too fine and free and fastidious a being for such tasks. I shall believe the doctrine when I hear somebody say: “I have only got the wits to turn a wheel.” That would be real, that would be realistic, that would be scientific. That would be independent testimony that could not easily be disputed. It is exactly the same, of course, with all the other superiorities and denials of human equality, that are so specially characteristic of a scientific age. It is so with the men who talk about superior and inferior races; I never heard a man say: “Anthropology shows that I belong to an inferior race.” If he did, he might be talking like an anthropologist; as it is, he is talking like a man, and not infrequently like a fool.

I have long hoped that I might some day hear a man explaining on scientific principles his own unfitness for any important post or privilege, say: “The world should belong to the free and fighting races, and not to persons of that servile disposition that you will notice in myself; the intelligent will know how to form opinions, but the weakness of intellect from which I so obviously suffer renders my opinion manifestly absurd on the face of them: there are indeed stately and god-like races- but look at me! Observe my shapeless and fourth-rate features! Gaze, if you can bear it, on my commonplace and repulsive face!” If I heard a man making a scientific demonstration in that style, I might admit that he was really scientific. But as it invariably happens (by a curious coincidence) that the superior race is his own race, the superior type is his own type and the superior preference for work the sort of work he happens to prefer. (G.K.’s Weekly, 25 April 1925)

As for his thoughts on the Jewish people specifically, consider this passage from The Everlasting Man:

…the world owes God to the Jews… [T]hrough all their wanderings… they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacle…The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. [W]hile the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe…

And as for the place of Jews in European politics, Chesterton was a long-standing critic of what he called “Hitlerism”, and though he died several years before the war began, he wrote, “I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and I will die defending the last Jew in Europe.”

There are things for which Chesterton can be justly criticized. By all means, let his economic theory be poked and prodded with sharp instruments until it squeals, let us pillory his blustery excess and poor preparation, let us lament his bondage to an alliterative vice, let his corpulent frame serve as a terrible warning to all who would neglect their exercise, but this business of anti-Semitism is unconvincing.  The man was not perfect, and with his penchant for colourful exaggeration he may have occasionally let slip an unsavoury phrase, but this charge is too severe and uncharitable to sustain on such slender evidence.  That Gopnik dwells on it as he does marrs an otherwise fine and much appreciated essay.

Sunday night folk-song

July 13, 2008

All week long — who knows why — I’ve had that beautiful English Irish folk-song “Down by the Salley Gardens” running through my head.  Here is a performance of the song by counter-tenor Andreas Scholl, given a few years ago in London at the “Last Night of the Proms” concert.  The second song he sings is “Fairest Isle”, from Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur.

The volume level on this video is uncharacteristically high.  I recommend turning your levels down before starting the clip.