Archive for February, 2020

All of Bach

February 27, 2020

This world is full of wonders, and here’s another: the Netherlands Bach Society has undertaken a massive project to record high quality video of performances of all of Bach’s music, and then to make it all available for free online. I’ve only just learned about this effort in the past few weeks, but it’s been going on in earnest for 4 years now, with a new video every few days. It’s marvellous, the truest of treasure troves!

As a sampler, here is the Cello Suite No.5 in C minor, played by Hidemi Suzuki on a 16th century cello:


Bubs: Totally Random

February 16, 2020

Totally Random
A Serious Comic on Entanglement
Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub
(Princeton, 2018)
260 p.

Entanglement is one of the physical phenomenon in which the strangeness of the quantum world comes most clearly into focus. It has been historically important in debates about the meaning and completeness of quantum mechanics, and it continues to attract attention from well-scratched heads.

In a nutshell, “entangled” quantum states involve two or more entities behaving in such a way that each cannot be fully described physically without reference to the others, even under conditions in which it seems that there can be no physical interaction between them. For instance, we observe experimentally that measurements on members of an entangled pair (of, say, photons) exhibit correlations that are seemingly impossible under a classical account of causality.

This graphic novel creatively explores the conundrums that arise from entanglement. The first section presents the experimental evidence and various (failed) attempts to make it fit into a standard causal framework, emphasizing the challenge entanglement poses for our usual understanding of the natural world. The second section introduces us to various schools of interpretation of quantum mechanics, focusing on what they have to say about entanglement, and the final section surveys some technological innovations, chiefly related to encryption, that have been made possible by use of entangled quantum states.

It is, as the sub-title indicates, a serious engagement with the ideas it presents, albeit without any mathematics. Jeffrey Bub is a philosopher at the University of Maryland whose specialties include quantum theory. (Tanya Bub, I believe, is responsible for the illustrations, without which a graphic novel would be poor fare indeed.) [Addendum: as clarified in the comments below, the book is a full collaboration between the two authors, and did not divide neatly along content/illustration lines.] The main ideas of entanglement are presented using an imaginary but instructive case of entangled quantum coins (i.e. quoins) that exhibit what they call “curious correlations” when tossed. The sections on interpretation of the experimental findings rather winsomely bring in the historical figures (Bohr, Bohm, Einstein, Everett, etc.) who proposed or defended them. Some of the book’s narrative dialogue drifts toward the quotidian, especially in interludes between the main technical content; I didn’t like this, but I’m a curmudgeon. Overall, it’s an interesting and creative book that makes this sometimes abstruse, but important, topic accessible to all comers.


February 10, 2020

Many years ago I heard a delightful piece on the radio from the Bang on a Can festival: Failing, by Tom Johnson, which he described as “a very difficult piece for string bass”, and he wasn’t kidding. It’s a fun piece in which the performer has to play a score while speaking to the audience in a calm, measured tone, with comedic results as the demands on the player increase.

That recording can be heard here. Recently, however, someone posted another performance with the score to YouTube, and it is well worth watching, just to see the instructions the performer has to follow. A smile is pretty much guaranteed:

Marlowe: Tamburlaine

February 6, 2020

Tamburlaine the Great
Parts I and II
Christopher Marlowe
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1995) [c.1587]
136 p.

Most of us, if we read Marlowe, read Doctor Faustus, and I am no exception. But having embarked on a tour of early-ish modern drama, I thought I would back up a few years to read some of Marlowe’s earlier plays, and I landed on this two-part historical drama about the fourteenth-century Eurasian conqueror, Timur.

First, a word about the place of these plays in the grand scheme of things. Elizabethan drama has a high reputation in English letters, mostly, of course, on account of a certain dramatist from Stratford-upon-Avon, but I am a little surprised to find little evidence of noteworthy dramatists before Marlowe, who was an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, and who first took the stage when Elizabeth had already been on the throne for three decades. Elizabethan drama, it seems, was a late but quick bloomer.

With this in mind, it is interesting to learn that Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays were a new kind of excellent thing, or at least a kind of thing newly excellent. He is credited with demonstrating the dramatic potential of blank verse, and with bringing a fresh and admirable level of craftsmanship to the English stage. The plays were a commercial success, and were the only of Marlowe’s plays to be published in his lifetime.


The Tamburlaine plays chart the rags-to-riches story of a shepherd boy (though, historically, a minor nobleman) who rises to be ruler of a huge swathe of land stretching from Egypt to Persia. He is a man of unwavering courage and winsome charisma who first charms, and then slaughters, his way to the top. Marlowe gives us this evocative description of his person:

Of stature tall, and straightly fashioned,
Like his desire, lift upwards and divine;
So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas’ burden; ‘twixt his manly pitch,
A pearl more worth than all the world is plac’d,
Wherein by curious sovereignty of art
Are fix’d his piercing instruments of sight,
Whose fiery circles bear encompassed
A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres,
That guides his steps and actions to the throne
Where honour sits invested royally;
Pale of complexion, wrought in him with passion,
Thirsting with sovereignty and love of arms;
His lofty brows in folds do figure death,
And in their smoothness amity and life;
About them hangs a knot of amber hair,
Wrapped in curls, as fierce Achilles’ was,
On which the breath of heaven delights to play,
Making it dance with wanton majesty;
His arms and fingers long and sinewy,
Betokening valour and excess of strength;—
In every part proportion’d like the man
Should make the world subdu’d to Tamburlaine.
(II, i)

And he himself reveals his defining characteristic — ambition — in a speech from the second play:

Nature, that fram’d us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet’s course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
(II, vii)

He is a noble character, in the beginning, whose confidence lies in virtue (“the fount whence honour springs / And they are worthy she investeth kings” (Part I, IV, iv)) and a conviction that fate intends him for great things (“And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere / Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.” (Part I, I, ii).

And so he rises, relentlessly, conquering first the Persians, then the Turks, and then marching against Egypt. He marries a beautiful woman, Zenocrates, daughter of the Egyptian ruler, but even this alliance is not enough to quell his conquering spirit. As his power grows, he becomes increasingly cruel, the devotion his men feel for him being gradually replaced by fear, and the slaughter of his enemies becoming ever more theatrical and indiscriminate, until a character can aptly describe him as

The monster that hath drunk a sea of blood,
And yet gapes still for more to quench his thirst
(Part II, V, ii)

(This is not a gross exaggeration on Marlowe’s part; the historical Tamburlaine is estimated to have killed 5% of the world’s population in his wars.)


Despite the violence and bloodshed, there is room in the plays for other kinds of pathos. When, in the second play, Tamburlaine’s wife dies, this man of whom we have become increasingly wary is granted a moving expression of his grief:

Black is the beauty of the brightest day;
The golden ball of heaven’s eternal fire,
That danc’d with glory on the silver waves,
Now wants the fuel that inflam’d his beams;
And all with faintness, and for foul disgrace,
He binds his temples with a frowning cloud,
Ready to darken earth with endless night.
(Part II, II, iv)

And there is even a dash of comedy in the play, especially in a scene from Part I in which the lady-loves of Tamburlaine and his Turkish foe watch the battle from a promontory, exchanging taunts about how each will treat the other when her husband is victorious. It’s worth sampling at some length:

ZABINA. Base concubine, must thou be plac’d by me
That am the empress of the mighty Turk?

ZENOCRATE. Disdainful Turkess, and unreverend boss,
Call’st thou me concubine, that am betroth’d
Unto the great and mighty Tamburlaine?

ZABINA. To Tamburlaine, the great Tartarian thief!

ZENOCRATE. Thou wilt repent these lavish words of thine
When thy great basso-master and thyself
Must plead for mercy at his kingly feet,
And sue to me to be your advocate.

ZABINA. And sue to thee! I tell thee, shameless girl,
Thou shalt be laundress to my waiting-maid.—
How lik’st thou her, Ebea? will she serve?

EBEA. Madam, she thinks perhaps she is too fine;
But I shall turn her into other weeds,
And make her dainty fingers fall to work.

ZENOCRATE. Hear’st thou, Anippe, how thy drudge doth talk?
And how my slave, her mistress, menaceth?
Both for their sauciness shall be employ’d
To dress the common soldiers’ meat and drink;
For we will scorn they should come near ourselves.

ANIPPE. Yet sometimes let your highness send for them
To do the work my chambermaid disdains.
(III, iii)

Ill-humoured humour, perhaps, but humour nonetheless.


Tamburlaine moves from strength to strength as the plays progress, but the plays are tragedies, so we know things must eventually take a turn. We might expect, or at least hope, that Tamburlaine’s downfall would be occasioned by his waxing cruelty, or by some other defect of character, and a seeming prophetic utterance of his Turkish enemy in Part I gives us some ground to expect as much:

BAJAZETH. Great Tamburlaine, great in my overthrow,
Ambitious pride shall make thee fall as low
(IV, ii)

Yet, as it falls out, Tamburlaine simply goes from strength to strength until he doesn’t. We are already in the fifth Act of the second play before, as he prepares to exit a scene, Tamburlaine remarks,

But stay; I feel myself distemper’d suddenly.
(V, i)

And so it happens, nearly as suddenly, that he falls ill and dies. What are we to make of this? It feels arbitrary and anticlimactic to me. Perhaps Marlowe intends us to see in this sudden misfortune the hand of Fate or a judgment of Providence upon Tamburlaine. If so, he goes to his grave quite unconscious of his faults, and boasting of his divine mandate:

Farewell, my boys! my dearest friends, farewell!
My body feels, my soul doth weep to see
Your sweet desires depriv’d my company,
For Tamburlaine, the scourge of God, must die.
(Part II, V, ii)


I have some reservations, then, about the overall dramatic structure of the plays. The plot is, by the standards of at least one of Marlowe’s contemporaries, remarkably simple, following, to a good approximation, a single line and one main character. The tragic element, as I’ve just said, seems peremptory and unmotivated.

But there is much to enjoy as well: the plot, though simple, is sweeping and exotic; the arc of the story is intriguing, as the plays encourages us to admire their central character and then to reluctantly abandon our admiration; and the language of the plays has a weight and eloquence admirably suited to their subject.

Around and about

February 4, 2020
  • Roger Scruton passed away this month at the age of 75. Numerous tributes have been published, notable among them being Roger Kimball’s thoughtful appreciation at The New Criterion, Douglas Murray’s at The Spectator, Theodore Dalrymple’s at City Journal, and Edward Feser’s at his blog. I admired him, and am surprised to find that I’ve written about only one of his books in this space: Culture Counts.
  • Tom Stoppard gives a rare interview in anticipation of the premiere of a new play, Leopoldstadt.
  • It’s not often that I find myself onside with Philip Pullman, but I am in this case: the Brexit coin ought to have an Oxford comma.
  • At the American Scholar, Sudip Bose writes about Henry Purcell’s multiple musical settings of “If music be the food of love”.
  • Alex Ross commemorates the 50th anniversary of ECM Records, the coolest record label in the world. ECM has for decades made some of the best records of Arvo Pärt’s music; here is a good account of how those legendary recordings came about.
  • At Vulture, a good story about Terrence Malick’s process in making A Hidden Life.

For an envoi, let’s hear one of Purcell’s settings of “If music be the food of love”. This is Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley: