Sunday, May 31, 2020

America is

Rioting is not the language of the unheard any more than abuse is the language of the abused. Both sentences have a manipulative, selective half-truth partisanship about them, excusing the behavior of whomever is the hero of their narrative, aspiring to victory at the expense of other unheard victims. So in this one sense if only one, Dr. King was absolutely wrong. Every person who reads even the smallest bit of human history knows that riots can be sponsored, directed, and stoked by those in power to do their bidding, and every Jew knows that in their bones.

Humanity's a complicated thing. Roughly 1% of the population is psychopaths and 1% is sociopaths, circumstances which cannot be overcome. Roughly 7% have narcissistic tendencies which can be overcome with genuine effort. One has to figure that there might be a similarly saintly 2% of the population and another 7% that can aspire to altruism. But the rest of us are just doing what we can to respond best to every situation, content with the simple truths we're handed until life gets so difficult, so complicated, so adult, that everything we thought was true until difficult moments is true no longer, and the safety of our assumptions provide us no comfort at all, for all around us there are only nightmares.
Making decisions in pressure-filled moments is the most complicated thing we shall ever do; the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle carried into real life, when a thousand infinitesimal circumstances and details affect decisions we make. Eventually, we will either forgive each other for them, for we know not what we do, or we all will die with lives completely unsatisfied, and often prematurely.
Whether the riots are a spontaneous eruption of rage by normal African-American people who don't have fanatical bones in their all too often broken bodies, or coopted by Antifa-like elements searching for this moment to set America on fire, or by far right agent-provocateurs looking to make their opposition look bad just as perhaps Nazis once did to the Reichstag building, or some combination of all three, one can only shrug and understand that however one feels about this moment, it was completely inevitable: A country cooped up for ten weeks, yet another video of police lynching of African-Americans, a President stoking the fires of a country's rage for five whole years, mass death everywhere, and an unemployment rate already unseen even in the Great Depression. This is the American Carnage of which Trump long spoke, and he is now its ultimate visitor.
But the last round of widespread American riots, riots in the wake of the greatest gains in liberty ever achieved on American soil, resulted in the irrecoverable loss of urban prosperity that, fifty-two years later, still sets back every goal it ever set out for itself. Today, at a moment when cities finally appear poised for some sort of permanent renewal, the same frisson and synergy and cash flow and hyper-organization which makes cities the greatest of all human achievements also makes them the most dangerous - the kindling upon which thousands die of murder, and substance abuse, and now pandemic. In such moments, the people with money inevitably leave, and leave the people without money to rot in the remains. Whether it's morally justifiable that some people have more capital than others is almost irrelevant, some people always will, and from generation to generation it's usually the same people who used to have capital that still do. However unfair it is that the undue burden is placed on some people over others, that burden will not lift.
But there is a way to lighten the burden dramatically - not by changing the system, but by reforming it. The forces that maintain an invisible bias of favor, if such a system exists, is so much more infinitely complicated than anything socialists, anarchists, intersectionalists, communists, and so many other false ideologies allege, and however much they promise that the system can be overthrown and a better one put in its place, NEVER believe them. They are the same snakeoil recipes as conservatism, libertarianism, Christianism, and even fascism - all they do is put the same ingredients in the bowl in reverse order; they corrode every measure of security which liberals and their ancestors fought so hard to implement over hundreds of years.

The proof of it is all around America today in every major city. It will probably take another fifty years to recover from the self-inflicted economic hits of this weekend. How many thousands more will die from the spread of COVID during these protests? And whether Trump wins in 2020 or a much more competent fascist wins later, how many more thousands will die from the still worse coming poverty? How many more thousands will die from murder in un-policed streets or murder in over-policed streets? How many more millions will go into incarceration? How many more millions may die of still more pandemics and STILL have no proper medical care?
What can avert this evil decree is the kind of robust regulative state of the sort that liberals affected in the mid-20th century that ensured the greatest gains in civil rights in all of American history, perhaps all of human history. Putting back all the safeties that were once in place: federal taxes on the wealthy nearly three times as high as they are currently, a ban on trading between commercial and investment banks, no expense spared for a properly educated population and no procedural regulation spared for a properly trained police force, the most stringent environmental protections and the strongest division between state and church, ambitious infrastructure and maintenance initiatives, liberal immigration laws leavened by reliable background checks, strong reliance and stronger involvement in international-multilateral institutions, and yes, more obvious now than ever, truly universal health care. And there is only one candidate to vote for and volunteer for in whom that all remains a possibility.
America is not a dream or a nightmare, it is a reality. America is not a beacon nor an abyss, it is a mountain that must be climbed. It was a place to achieve greater liberty except through the most herculean efforts of strength and conscience, nor was it ever a place that preaches liberty while practicing only tyranny. It is a place comprised of very normal people with inclinations to both good and evil, and given more freedom to pursue both instincts than any other country in world history. It is a country naturally predisposed to extremes, and therefore when the regulatory state ceases to do its job at a moment when it is still the world's most powerful nation, it has greater capacity for extreme behavior than any other country in world history, capacities that have never even begun to realize their full potential. And therefore, within that potential for unspeakably violent warfare is the ability to eventually win a more perfect peace, but history amply demonstrates that peace is inevitably a purchase at the steepest possible price.
America is a struggle, a place where hundreds of millions arrived either on the chance to do better, or arrived because worse was done to them. It can never form a perfect union, only a more perfect one, and perhaps by definition, half the time it will fail. Jill Lepore's indispensible instant classic, These Truths, asks of the Declaration of Independence, "Does American History prove these truths, or does it belie them?" The answer, insofar as there can ever be one, is that America simultaneously does both. But now, as ever before, and perhaps quite a bit more, America is called to answer that question definitively.
I could of course be wrong, I have been many times, and this may be the result of the filter through which my ultradramatic temperament sees the world. But it seems to me that this moment is the very moment to which entire American experiment has been building, when we see whether a nation so conceived in liberty can long endure. Difficult days may be ahead, the type of hard days which many of us were assured in childhood could never happen in this country. But they seem to be almost here, and we, like so many billions before us, may be called to account to see how we respond in some of the most pressure-filled moments in human history. None of us know how we'll behave through them, and some of us may have to live with the guilt of our actions for the rest of our lives as so many adults always do, but our stories are all part of the larger story. And in that sense, whether for good or ill, our lives have meaning and lessons to be drawn for those who come after us. May we all set an example from which the future can draw lessons for good.
Amen.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: Jon Leifs



Scandinavian music is just different. There isn't enormous population density even in the large cities, and so often in place of human expression is an emphasis on natural phenomena. But because it's so close to the Arctic Circle, the phenomena are harsher, more dramatic, more epic than countries residing entirely within temperate zones, where nature is far more hospitable to people.

And therefore when you hear the music of so many Scandinavians expressing in their natural metier: composers like Sibelius, Nielsen, Langgaard, Aho, Sallinen, Norgard, Holmboe, Rautavaara, Saariaho, Lindberg - what you sometimes hear is not so much personal expression of the type one would get from a traditional composer whose influences are grounded in 1800 Vienna. Rather, what you hear is music that imitates direct contact with nature.



But of the nature influenced composers, there is no more 'natural' composer than the Icelandic Jon Leifs, a large part of whose corpus is supposed to be a direct imitation of natural phenomena. His main teacher was, of all people, Ferruccio Busoni, and Leifs probably could have had a career as a concert pianist and conductor had he so chosen. But instead, Busoni encouraged him to follow his own path, and Leifs truly became a composer like no other.

Perhaps his most famous composition now is which Hekla, which depicts the largest volcanic eruption of the century, which he saw in 1947. It requires 19 percussion players, including shotguns,  canons, steel ship chains, anvils, church bells, and 'rocks with a musical quality.' The composer also asks for 'a large wooden stump on a wooden floor.'



He also has a similar piece of literal evocation called 'Geysir', which is, appropriately enough, about a geyser, which are an iconic phenomenon of Iceland. There's also a work called 'Hafis' which is a depiction of drift ice. And a cantata called Dettifoss, depicting the Icelandic waterfall which is about the largest in Europe. Together, these four are said to form the 'Nature Cycle' (there's also a few other natural phenomena pieces that don't seem to be considered part of the official cycle). Together these comprise one of the underperformed yet iconic works of genius in 20th century classical music. Music unlike any ever written before or since, related to Sibelius only in the most extreme tangent, and the influence of Busoni is almost unrecognizable (at least to me). Indeed, if there's a composer Leifs sounds most like, it is Thomas Ades, whom I think is an admirer of Leifs's, and goes to show that Leifs is far more our contemporary, far more the contemporary of au currant northern Europeans like Ades and Lindberg  than the contemporary of Hindemith and Shostakovich to which his chronology would indicate.

Friday, May 29, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

So the most volatile fight ever gotten into on this page was right after the Ferguson riots. My brother literally texted me to congratulate me. What I did that started it was to say that they could not be more counterproductive to the desired results. People were blocked, friends swore up and down that they'd never talk to each other ever again (that lasted two weeks...), and one guy who never responded to another post of mine would literally write response posts an hour or two after every long post I ever did for five years that were obviously meant to respond to me. I have no idea how anyone could live so far inside another person's head, and for years I thought I was imagining it until he wrote something with a description of me and then wrote: "Yes, I'm talking about YOU." Fortunately, he recently blocked me, I don't know how it took so long, but it was a kind of game of passive aggressive chicken in which I didn't want to admit how much it bothered me and he clearly didn't want to admit how much it bothered him.... I was never writing particularly about him, I didn't really think about him much at all, and yet it was so clear he was using me as his straw man of everything wrong with white liberals.
It was almost exactly a year before the Baltimore riots. Baltimore changed thereafter almost overnight, whatever little chance for a renaissance we had was squelched, people stopped moving in and still more people moved out, murder rates went up, economic production slowed down, and speaking of something that should matter to only me, the honeymoon I enjoyed in my first three years back in Baltimore went belly up at roughly the exact same time.
That was 2014-15, we still lived in Obama's America, most of us, hell, even me a little bit, were still in denial at the true extent of the rot. This is 2020, 100,000 people are dead from incompetence, and couple destroyed police stations will barely note a mention in the era's attempted wholesale demolishment of a recognizable United States.
The information is in now. Nobody should give a shit what I think, I only write it down so that my crazy brain remembers what I think if it ever goes south. And whether in 2014 or 2020, any objection to that kind of civil unrest is mitigated by the fact that counterproductive or not, what did you ever think was going to happen when a whole twenty percent of the country gets red-lined out of prosperity, blamed for societal ills that affect them far more than they affect us, get thrown into prison by the million, and are helpless against the proliferation of guns and drugs which are only profited by a couple white gazillionaires?
I still think that these riots are the exact sort of straw man 'American Carnage' Trump has longed to provoke for his whole term, a tailor made excuse for Trump or any other Republican to appeal to the basket of deplorables and make them clamor for the kind of controls on society that triple our hardships, quadruple theirs, and quintuple minorities', but what did we expect? It was the fault of centrist Democrats who consciously made a deal with the devil in the 90s to choose prosperity over long-term security, and broke down the line of defense against the worst of Republican ideology. They lowered the already too low taxes to the point that the already wealthy would easily grow into megamillionaires, they broke down the line between commercial and investment banking so stocks could become easy money for people who could already afford a portfolio, they allowed hundreds of thousands to be thrown jail for decades for the most minor offenses, they prevented the institution of Universal Healthcare, and they refused to cut military spending when the Soviet Union was already gone. If that's what you believe we should have done, I doubt there's any argument I can make to convince you otherwise. But we're now living with the results, and increasingly, we're now dying from the results.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Tales From the Old New Land - Chapters 1-6 of the Prologue Outline

Opening Paragraph: 

What is the Old New Land? Where is the Old New Land? We have no idea what it is or where to look or where we'll find it, but the material who, the how and the whither, the warp and weft, the length width depth and time, the dwelling foundations splendor and even eternity, are mere surface on the face of the deep. The Old New Land is the space between space, where exists possibility, plane, history, law, condition, and infinity; glory, law, lovingkindness, the sources of wisdom, and the crown of creation itself. If it exists at all, and of that existence there shall always be doubt, then it abides in that apogee of maximal cosmic tension to which we all arrive in the instant before the great celestial snap, a place of the world of no end that by wrestling to realize, we seem to bring tiny emanations down to our own, if only for a specific and small indeed finite time, if only in a specific and small indeed definite place. It is that land that within all actions seem motivated by greatness, and much in that brief instant even by goodness, for from that unboundedness of spheres above, we carry those best selves which comprise our share of the divine creation. Once we see it, we work, and we work, and we work, and we wait, and we wait, and we wait, but we're always thrown out of the Old New Land. 

Prologue: Reb Yaakov, Bransk, 1894

Suggested Reading (completely optional): 
Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer
Collected Stories and Tevye the Milkman by Sholem Aleichem
Tales of Rabbi Nachman

We begin in Bransk, 'every-shtetl' Northeast Poland of six-thousand inhabitants who are mostly farmers, half-Jewish, half-Christian, a place of Jewish hicks where nobody of particular distinction ever hailed from, except for the author's grandfather, Morris Tucker, formerly Meishel Tecoczki, and formerly before that Moshe Kharlap. 

The name Kharlap is an acronym for 'Khiya, Rosh-l'Galut L'Polin', in Hebrew letters Khet-Reysh-Lamed-Pey, and translates to Khiya, head of the exiles in Poland; which means that the patrilineal line of the author's family is either descended from the first chief Rabbi of Poland, or some medieval Polish-Jewish merchant-grifter who realized he could mark up his prices if he lied about the eminence of his family lineage (his 'Yichus' as we say in Yiddish). 

Kharlap shall be the name of the fictionalized family to which we subject the ordeal of this book. It is a family that incarnates in somewhat mythical circumstances, akin to a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (for those of you not familiar with Singer, think of a Jewish Gabriel Garcia Marquez if he accepted editors' suggestions).  

The year is 1894, it's just before Christmas, and Rebbe Yaakov Kharlap is a small town Rabbi, not even the synagogue rabbi for his town but merely a Kheder instructor - Kheder being the elementary school through which shtetl children are first taught their Hebrew letters, how to pray, how to read, how to memorize pages at a time of the Torah and Talmudic tractate. He is an alte mensch (old man )of the alte shul (old school), very free with the ruler upon the knuckles, and extremely proud, to the point of denial, about the brood of his twelve adolescent children: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Yissachar, Z'vulun, Dinah (a daughter), and Yoseph. 

You may recognize these names as the exact names of Jacob(Yaakov)'s children in the Old Testament or Tanakh. The reason for these names was because when the already middle aged Reb Yaakov was told that after he and his not particularly young wife's difficult years of conceiving, an angel appeared to Reb Yaakov in a dream, and in response to Reb Yaakov's insistent demand for a blessing, announced to Reb Yaakov that his wife would bear him twelve sons, which Reb Yaakov must in turn name after the twelve tribes of Israel. 

The children come in six sets of twins of absurdly quick succession over five years between 1876-1880. All of whom, like the miracle Reb Yaakov knew would happen that everyone else doubted, survive into adulthood, albeit with many illnesses along the way that were meant to test the unbreakable faith of Reb Yaakov. All eleven of his sons are now Bar Mitzvahed, and the septuagenerian Reb Yaakov eagerly awaits the birth any day now which his unnamed sexagenarian wife will give to what he absolutely knows will be his twelfth son, who shall be named Benyamin. 

Of course, Reb Yaakov has a twin brother himself, Ezra. Unlike Reb Yaakov who cannot make more money on his own than a small town teacher's salary can afford, Ezra is a wealthy man in Bialystok who the nearest Polish city. He has by and large abandoned Judaism, and Reb Yaakov is well aware that Ezra's much more 'enlightened' (re: assimilated) wife Ada has nothing but contempt for Reb Yaakov and through her perhaps correct pressure, Ezra is forced to consistently cut the sums he sends Reb Yaakov to feed his children, who now are old enough to work on their own. 

Chapter 1: 

As I said, we begin in the Kheder class of Reb Yaakov, who is very free with the ruler and constantly berating his luftmenschen (idler) charges for their lack of attention and refusal to sit still. He sits there and goes through the lesson, we'll decide which bible story it is later, but it should be a metaphor for the whole story, and therefore must be chosen well into the final drafts. But at witnessing, yet again, his students' obviously willful inability to retain the information he relates, he hits one student with the ruler shouting NIBZEH L'AZAZEL KHALERIYA! (basically untranslatable...), and shouts insult after insult at their stupid questions: their naarishkeit (simplemindedness/stupidity) and their skhok v'kalos rosh (light-mindedness). "Is Dreyfus going through all this just so you mamzerim (bastards) can dishonor his sacrifice!"

Incidentally to the story, the narration will be entirely in English, but the characters speak in a kind of Yid-lish patois which gives the character of the language while still being intelligible to the average American reader. 

Reb Yaakov then goes through a 'nervous breakdown of exposition' in which he tells his story as related above, and then tells the story of being passed over as the new town Rabbi, and then compares these naarisher pischers ('bedwetters') to his model Yiddisher Kops (Jewish heads) whom he raised correctly to be menschen (good people) and tzaddikim (righteous). And how Hashem has finally rewarded him for his greyceh tzuris (great troubles) with a final child, whom he knows will be a son he shall name Benyamin. 

Chapter 2:

We immediately cut to four of the brothers smoking cigarettes in the Jewish cemetery: Shimon, Asher, Naftali, and Z'vulun, the last of which is pissing (pishing) on the headstone of the old Bransker Rebbe. They're standing around a copy of a Yiddish newspaper, reading about the injustices done to some guy named Dreyfus in France, and making fun of how much the alter kockers ('old shitters') seem to care about this guy who, as far as anybody knows for sure, might not even be Jewish. They make fun of Dreyfus's very 19th century military uniform with its ridiculous plumage. One of them swears he heard that the French uniform is red white and blue, another disbelieves him "How did the zelners (soldiers) not know where to shoot from a hectare (hundred acres) away?" (which was the French army's biggest problem all through the 19th century until the first few months of World War I.). They say that with a fancy mustache like that he can't be Jewish "What the schtup is that mustache? No Yid, NOT even a Feinschmeker (meaning roughly gourmand) would walk into a barber and say MAKE MY MUSTACHE LOOK LIKE THE HAIR OVER MY PUTZ!" They make fun of their father's sermonizing about Dreyfus, they make fun of the new Rebbitzin (Rabbi's wife) who cries at the name of Dreyfus, and they make fun of the synagogue Hazzan (cantor) who's now including a prayer for Dreyfus. Ends with "Why the fuck do a bunch of alte trombeniks (old blowhards) give a fuck about some French faygaleh?"

Chapter 3: 

A pack of Polish shaget (male 'shiksa', derogatory terms for gentiles) hoodlums advance on them, seemingly from nowhere. The Polish kids speak in a Polish/English patois similar to the Yiddish kids'. They're much larger than the Jewish kids. The Poles make fun of the Jewish boys' ability to read, make fun of their dress, even make fun of the way they have fun. They snatch away the newspaper and tell the Jewish kids that these letters are probably where they learn the spells that killed one of their sisters. The Poles then say 'Tak, we heard about your family, a rodzina where all the kids live? That's fucking czarny (black) magic! You're probably here so nobody can hear your plans to poison our blyading (fucking) wells." Finally, Shimon, whom it's established early in scene 2 is a hothead, can't take it anymore: "Well maybe if your kind cleaned their shtupping wells once in a while your kid sister wouldn't get sick and die!" 

Everything goes silent, "What are you saying? That you fucking mordecas (murderers) of Christ have the solution to not getting chory (sick) this whole time and you've been keeping it from us?" 

Shimon's brothers try to talk him down but it's too late: 
"Go back to your shtupping Boyars and Preists, they knew it this whole time and they kept it from you to keep you stupid!"
"Are you calling our Holy Fathers liars!"
"They're fucking thieves, rapists and murderers."
By this time, two of the brothers have fled and the only one left is Asher, Shimon starts getting roughed up by the Pollacks, and he calls out for help from Asher but Asher hesitates and then runs away like his brothers. 

Shimon has to defend himself alone. he gets beaten to a pulp by the Russians who taunt him "Your brothers have left you!", eventually they leave him for dead. 

Chapter 4:

We're right outside a barn where Reuven and Levi are working for a Shokhet (Kosher butcher). They are shovelling hay for the butcher's prize lamb which he is keeping for the Bransker Rebbe to eat on the eighth day of Hanukkah. 

Levi is telling Reuven about his dreams again, about how like Tateh (Dad), he thinks he is being visited by angels, and Reuven, a very practical sort, tells him he's fertummelt (onomatopoetic term meaning confused/mixed up). "But you don't understand how vivid they are. They have to be real! They're as real as you right here." 
Reuven is half making fun of him "Are they emesdikker (really) real or are they 'falshen' real. 
Levi takes it more seriously: 'Well it's not real the way you and I are, it's like you can see them completely, but you can also see through them."
Reuven: "So your mind is falling for your own schvindle (swindle)?"
"Feh! (untranslatable) It's not a schvindle!"
"What do you know from schvindles..."
"I know what these malakhim (angels) tell me." 
"And what do they tell?"
"You obviously wouldn't believe them."
"No I wouldn't, but I want to hear them anyway."
"That this will be the Great Age of our people. That we will all be destroyed, and then we will all be saved."
"You mean like Moshiach (the Messiah) coming?"
"I don't know... they haven't said. I just know that we're about to live through the most important time in thousands of years." 
(beat)
"Feh!"
"That's what they said!"
"Levi I'm getting worried, has anyone ever told you you have a Lokhen Kop? (hole in the head)"
"You asked so I'm telling you!"
"Just don't you dare tell Tateh this! You used to be such a mensch! But you're getting really tschudne (weird)! If he knew this it would break his heart. 

They're interrupted by the butcher's wife who's coming out of the house: "Stop shtupping kibbitzing and get back to arbeit (work)!"
(both of them) "We're working!"
"You're schreking so much I can hear it from the bodroom, if you worked more you'd get angry less, it'll set you free!" 

Chapter 5:

Reuven goes inside, Levi goes about his work plucking the chickens for the butcher to kill, and suddenly the chickens start talking to Reuven. Their clucks sound like passages of Torah, "shalkheni ki alah hashakhar" ("Let me go for the dawn is breaking!" what the angel says to Jacob when they wrestle). One chicken says it, then another, then a third, and finally a giant chorus of chickens speaking Hebrew. 

The prize lamb speaks directly to Levi. "I am a descendent of the sheep slaughtered by Avel (Abel) and Avraham (Abraham). The yichus (lineage) of my bloodline was used on the slave doors of Mitzraim (Egypt). My ancestors were present at the death of Shmuel (Samuel) and were given to the Melech of Eretz Yisroel by Meesha the Moabite. And I must die immediately. There is so little time to explain, but a fault in how we say the khakham harazim brakha (it's a long story....) means that as many as 600,000 Jews will soon die if you do not kill me right now, terrible things are happening, and if you do not act, a calamity will befall the the entire people of Israel!"
"But!"
"Hurry! It may already be too late!"
Levi panics and immediately slits the lamb's throat and is covered in blood.

Chapter 6: 

Reuven goes inside the shokhet's house for a long narrative in which the many expensive wears of the schokhet are described, a foreshadowing of Reuven's future. While this is far from the first time, he finally works up the nerve to steal yet another candlestick. He is however discovered by the schokhet's wife: old, fat, sickly, who makes the price for her silence abundantly clear. She says "Oh, no, you didn't take it. Don't you remember I gave it to you as a geshank." And as she says it, she begins to unbutton Reuven's belt buckle. 

Tales From the Old New Land: Opening Preamble - First Draft

What is the Old New Land? Where is the Old New Land? We have no idea what it is or where to look or where we'll find it, but the material who, the how and the whither, the warp and weft, the length width depth and time, the dwelling foundations splendor and even eternity, are mere surface on the face of the deep. The Old New Land is the space between space, where exists possibility, plane, history, law, condition, and infinity; glory, law, lovingkindness, the sources of wisdom, and the crown of creation itself. If it exists at all, and of that existence there shall always be doubt, then it abides in that apogee of maximal cosmic tension to which we all arrive in the instant before the great celestial snap, a place of the world of no end that by wrestling to realize, we seem to bring small emanations down to our own, if only for a specific and small indeed definite time, if only in a specific and small indeed finite place. It is that land within which all actions seem motivated by greatness, and much of that brief instant even by goodness, for from that unboundedness of spheres above, we carry those best selves which comprise our share of the divine creation. Once we see it, we work, and we work, and we work, and we wait, and we wait, and we wait, but we're always thrown out, of the Old New Land. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why Art?

I don't know if any of you have realized this by now, dear readers, but I've been told many times over the course of my almost 40 years that I have a pessimistic, fatalistic, almost soul black view of life. Life constantly reminds us that it owes us only death, that we do not own our lives, we merely rent them, and we are born to die. The sword forever dangles but a millimeter from our necks, ready at any moment to open something that should be closed or close something that should be open.
I don't believe in life, but I do believe in art. I don't believe in art as a means to construct a better world, a world which I clearly believe isn't possible. And I don't believe in art as something loose and personal. I believe that when the chips are truly down, when life is at its darkest, messiest moments, art is the one thing that will understand you in your darkest and most complex hours, and if something can understand you then, it can let you build a modest corner of consolation from affliction in a dark world and thereby transmit to you a conduit back into the light, a place where entertainment once again suffices.
For a number of years I bristled with nearly as much contempt at this elitist notion of 'high art' as anyone I knew, and if I had less contempt than they, it was because unlike most of them, I still actively loved the stuff and could never turn my back on it completely.
But then, Summer 2015, I lost all my bands virtually all at once - the ones I lead as well as the ones for which I was a sideman, while simultaneously the relationship I was in went calamitously south nearly as overnight, along with half-a-dozen other once good friends around Baltimore whom at the exact same time seemed to decide, separately but nearly all at once, that I had to be dropped like hot potato. Was I really that bad to deserve it all? I seriously doubt it. but occasionally I think we all run into the truth that the people who love you most are the same people most likely to turn on you and fillet you like a salmon. Was it true tragedy in the grand scheme? Certainly not, and were this the worst thing that ever happened in my life, it would be a blessed life.
But when you're at an ebb that low, certainly when I'm at an ebb that low, there is no Beatles or Spielberg or even Simpsons that can get to you. Nor even could the mass stuff that self-consciously aims higher: when it gets really bad, even the Scorseses, the Dylans, the Mad Mens, the Coltranes, won't reach you. It's not that all of it isn't great, even transcendent, but not even the Mozarts or the Tolstoys get there either. The choice is either to ride with those who speak with the grave seriousness of your mind's condition: Isaiah and Ecclesiastes, Homer and Aeschylus, Dante and Montaigne, Tallis and Gesualdo, Hamlet and Lear, Purcell and Bach, Rembrandt and Goya, Beethoven and Schubert, Dickinson and Whitman, Chekhov and Singer, Mahler and Shostakovich, Turner and Van Gogh, Auden and Larkin, Ozu and Mizoguchi, De Sica and Bergman, Ray and Kieslowski, or ride straight into that void from which no return ticket may be honored. In yet another crisis from which I did not know if I would emerge, the various pop and genre stuff I'd brought into my diet suddenly tasted like wallpaper again, and I'd felt as though I'd whored out everything I loved most, that had given me most, just for a shot at a little popularity that I never got at the adolescent age when you should get all that out of your system.
It would seem that more and more people I know are beginning to feel exactly as I have for a cumulation of months every year for three decades. If the mood is black enough, then the only thing that will ever make sense and reach you is something whose view of the world is as black as the world seems to you at the moment, even if what they tell you is a lie (and I'm still not at all sure it is). I do not speak for anyone but myself, but I listen and watch such things, and I write them, so that I may not die from them. I cannot promise that life will continue, but if life does continue, such things as these will always fill whatever life is left to us with meaning.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tales from the Old New Land - Season 1 - Events We Need to Cover

1894:
1895: Dreyfus stripped of rank - must take place in Paris
1896: Plessy vs. Ferguson - must take place in small-town American south
1897: First Zionist Congress
1898: Expansion of New York into Five Boroughs
1899: Dreyfus Pardoned - again in Paris
1900: Boer War - must take place in South Africa, Italian anarchists assassinate the King
1901: Death of Queen Victoria - anti-Jewish riots in Budapest -
1902:
1903: Kishnev Pogrom, separation of Russian socialists into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks
1904: Russo-Japanese War - episode with Tolstoy
1905: 1905 January Revolution - St. Petersburg, Einstein and Nuclear Physics - episode in Zurich
1906: Gandhi and Satyargaha - South Africa, Dreyfus exoneration and reinstatement - Paris, launch of Dreadnaught - London
1907:
1908: Young Turk Revolution - Istanbul, King Leopold relinquishes Congo - another episode in South Africa
1909: Founding of Tel Aviv, Overthrow of Ottoman Sultan and Adana Massacre - Istanbul,
1910:
1911: Shirtwaist Factory Fire - New York,
1912:
1913: Woman's Suffrage Procession - Washington, Ottoman coup d'etat - Istanbul
1914: June - Assassination - Sarajevo, August - Belgian invasion by Germany, Battle of Tannenburg,
1915: January - Bromilow, February - Birth of a Nation - in the South, Palestine Locust Invasion, April - Armenian Genocide, Second Battle of Artois - development of No Man's Land, Ford makes a million cars - Detroit,
1916: January: Evacuation of Gallipoli, February: Verdun, May: Gas Attack at Hulluch, July: Battle of the Somme,
1917: Abdication of Czar Nicholas - St. Petersburg, Battles of Gaza & Beersheva & Jerusalem, Great Thessaloniki Fire, Balfour Declaration - London, October Revolution - St Petersburg
1918: Spanish Flu, Abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm - Berlin, Armistice
1919: Paris Peace Conference, Russian Civil War, Assassinattion of Rosa /luxembourg, Pinsk massacre, 19th ammendmeny=t,  Chicago Race Riot, Prohibiotion

Jews in the Land of Coronavirus - Prelude

In 2016, concerned my natural organizational confusion would muck things up, I was loathe to do volunteer work for Hillary Clinton, even as I exhorted people to the point of shame for not doing the same. But I think I've demonstrated ten thousand times over the course of my thirty-eight years that linguistic fortitude is my supremacy, dear reader, and to those who know me as anything other than a writer, I've demonstrated an exponent over ten thousand more that organizational efficacy is my death.
But committed soldier that I am to the American Experiment, on November 7 2016, T-minus one day, I packed myself into my car along with my customary too many snacks for the road, and drove up as part of a relatively large convoy to somewhere in Chester County or Norris County or Bucks County wherever it was around Philadelphia to knock on the doors of a couple dozen upper-middle class Italian-American swing voters in an effort to forestall the Fall of the Republic. After two hours of following more seasoned hands doing the barge-toting labor of making sure affluent suburbanites were fully aware of the stakes at hand (hint: they already were... or at least the ones were who came to the door...), the volunteer coordinator assured us we henceforth were fully trained foot-soldiers in the Army of Democracy: foot solders and much more. We each were allocated clipboards for our own responsibility, and subsequently allotted whole blocks, streets, even suburban thoroughfares, which were officially sanctioned to be our divisions upon which we were absolute battalion commanders.
Within fifteen minutes of getting that clipboard, adored reader; within thirty seconds of knocking on my first house, I'd locked myself out of my car with the clipboard still inside. My phone, withal, was all but completely out of battery, and had only enough juice to call headquarters, whereon I could but sheepishly ask them to call Triple-A, for had I to wait on hold, battery would be lost, and would I thereupon spend my remaining half-century in a cardboard shanty as a well-lettered vagrant in an unfortunate suburban Philadelphia front yard. The campaign coordinators could not, or at least they would not, call Triple-A at my behest. I surmise this was because suburban Triple-A employees are in the main not Clinton lovers, and could ostensibly wreak some havoc on this most sensitive day of American history if they knew where some Clinton volunteer coordinations were based out of (and lest that seem paranoid, beloved reader, once that day already in Baltimore, a Trump supporter tried to get a bunch of our cars towed and used his pickup truck to block us in in an attempt to disable our convoy); so they rather sent out other volunteers to find me, volunteers who by all rights should be knocking on the doors of "Dr. and Mrs. Russo/White/Age 49-65/Some Graduate School/she's a D he's an I/hasn't given money since 1996/believes in greater political civility but hates political correctness/believes in women's rights but opposes abortion/believes in more robust social programs but thinks their taxes are too high.' But as I was explaining my nebulous conception of my current location to the volunteers attempting to locate me, my phone battery, not unexpectedly, ran its course. Forty-five minutes later, two cars of campaign volunteers detected me and only then could I make the Triple-A call. But naturally, Triple-A doesn't think much of showing up if I don't have my information on me, and as might be expected, the information is in the car. In consequence, for well over an hour after the call is placed, I simply have to wait there, and because Triple-A might need to call me on the phone, a number of the volunteers have to wait with me rather than do the work they'd driven to Pennsylvania to do.
The moral of this story, darling reader, is that because I decided to volunteer and do as required exactly as other people do, Donald Trump was elected President. For the rest of my life, my failure to knock on those doors is a demerit upon my conscience. The fact that Donald Trump is our President is solely my fault, cherished reader, and mine alone. And all the consequent portentious events are exclusively due to my incompetence. One day, when Hashem renders judgement upon my life, the Heavenly tribunal will tell me what I have known all along - that my incompetence is the reason for everything bad that no only has ever happened to me, but that has ever happened to you, and to everyone you've ever known, and every future person yet born, and every event which happened before I was born.
In the Land of Coronavirus, I do not wish to look upon my hands and see yet more subsequent pools of blood upon them. Ergo, I believe the best job for which I can volunteer is to absent myself entirely from its relief efforts. In the ongoing, valiant, and still only progenitive efforts to rescue America's lives and welfare and entities and ecosystems and safety and interests and prosperity, no one should be cursed, dear reader, with relying on the abilities of the man whose ineptitude is the sole cause of Donald Trump's election.
All around us in this useless era, people are being useful, but of what use is the guy who's useless. We all have to think very hard in this era of confusion and privation how we can be of the most help. And how can I, precious reader, be of most help to you?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Tales From the Old New Land - Bransk 1894 - Outline - Draft/Outline 1

1894:

Scene 1:
Begins with Cheder class: Where Rabbi/instructor is Reb Yaakov Charlap, who has to instruct distracted children in torah, hits the ones who don't pay attention and bemoans that this class of Cheder bokhers is nowhere near as committed as the classes which contained his children.

Scene 2:

Cut to four of Reb Yaakov's children, Shimon, Asher, Naftali, and Z'vulun smoking cigarettes with a copy of a Yiddish newspaper and juvenilely talking about the beginning of the Dreyfus case and how much the adults care.

Scene 3:

A pack of Russian shaget hoodlums advance on them, make fun of their ability to read, tell them these weird letters probably where they learn to turn Russians into mushrooms, when Shimon tries to defend them and talk back, he gets roughed up by the Russians while the other brothers run away "Your brothers are leaving you."

Scene 4:

Reuven and Levi are working for Jewish butcher in a barn. When Gad goes inside, Levi starts experiencing what's clearly a long series of hallucinations, and can't help imagining that the cows and chickens he slaughters are martyrs from Jewish history whom he is killing. 

Scene 5: 

Reuven goes inside to steal another piece of silverware from butcher, the overweight sickly wife clearly has a liking him, a candlestick falls out of his coat. He claims it was an accident and the wife willfully convinces herself that it's an accident and gives it to him as a present. 

Scene 6:

Gad works for Jewish farmer who is dissatisfied with his work and hits him with his farm implement. 

Scene 7: 

Issachar works for a farming supplier and sees the poverty and starvatio in which the peasants live and gives them his wages for the day. 

Scene 8:

Z'vulun goes to see a prostitute to whom he owes money, but charms her into another session which runs up his tab further. 

Scene 9: 

Judah meets with the girl next door he hopes to marry, she drops the surprise that her family is moving to Israel.

Scene 10:

Dina is pregnant, and is goes to a Jewish 'witch' who gives her a concoction to give her an abortion. 

Scene 11: 

Yosef goes to a gymnasium to be tutored by a goyisher instructor who practically orders him to leave Bransk and go into the wider world. 

Scene 12: 

Dan meets with the town Rebbe who is instructing him in advanced Gemara, the Rabbi tries to kiss him, it's clear that it's not the first time, Dan finally manages the nerve to confront him, the Rebbe breaks down crying about his 'weakness.'


Scene 13:


Asher ambushes one of the goyisher hoodlums who beat up his brother and beats him to a point the kid might be dead. Asher has to run away. 

Scene 14:

Naftali practices and drinks with klezmorim who talk about their rebellious pasts. 

Longer Scene 15: Eleven of the twelve children gather because Reb Yaakov's final son, Benyamin, needs a bris. They do a l'chaim and do the bris, and for this bris, nobody is invited but the immediate family because soon they'll need a lot of money to get through all the weddings. Reb Yaakov tells the story of how this family came to be and his covenant with Hashem which allowed him twelve sons.  Reb Yaakov explains that an angel appeared to him in a dream, and that so long as he named his children after the twelve tribes of Israel, Hashem would bless his house. Reb Yaakov has a rich twin brother in Warsaw who sends them money but notes in his speech that he wishes his brother was here for this day but they haven't seen each other in ten years because his wife doesn't like Reb Yaakov, who also limits the amount of money that their family gets to a pittance of what the sum should be. He tells them that after Shabbos, the shatkhan will be coming with matches for all of you. Very soon you will all be married and have kinder of your own, this is going to be a year of Simcheh. The brothers drink with Reb Yaakov. Reb Yaakov starts talking about the Dreyfus affair, but one reminds them that a Warsaw doctor brought by Yaakov's brother warned that he would endanger the health of the mother if they ever had another child. Just when the dancing is about to start comes into the room, Dinah enters to tell them that the mother just died, and it causes a bitter fight among the children with their father who said that Reb Yaakov endangered their mother. It becomes clear that Reb Yaakov concealed from them is that their mother has been sick all week. As they're yelling at each other, a letter arrives from Yaakov's sister-in-law that the brother in Warsaw died, their business is being repossessed and the payments must stop immediately. The family knows they must break apart. 

---------------------

Scene 3: 
Gad works for a Jewish farmer who beats him
Reuven works as servant for a butcher, steals the silverware, and lies about it. 
Yosef goes to goyisher teacher to learn other subjects. Is ostracized by his brothers.
Dina is getting an abortion performed
Levi is schizophrenic who sees demons and angels, 
Dan is an illui who must dodge advances from his Rabbi. 
Judah longs for a beautiful teenaged girl, but her family is moving to Israel.
Zebulun is seeing a prostitute
Issachar works for farm supplier, is accused of cheating goyisher client. 
Naftali practices and drinks with Klezmorim 
Shimon is bullied by goyim
Asher fights back from goyim

A world of nature and magic, both spiritual and godly, but also erotic and pagan.

Some kids learning about science and literature and history on the sly. 

Overwhelming poverty around the family. Everyone is cold in the winter.

Some visiting prostitutes, some lusting after teenage yeshiva girls. 

Background animal noises, noises of hooves and wagon wheels, rustling of wind and leaves. 

An enormous, and extremely argumentative family - two thousand years of tension should be manifest in this family portrait. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 5/22: David Hurwitz


And so in the midst of COVID-19, one of our many surprises is that David Hurwitz is suddenly popping up with alacrity on youtube, and of course, he has something like 50 videos in the first week.... For a certain kind of classical music obsessive, this is about as surprising as if Thomas Pynchon or Carlos Kleiber started a youtube channel out of the blue. This disembodied machine who prints review after review of cranky music criticism every day for twenty years finally has a face, a voice, and mannerisms. Whom does he turn out to be? Well, to perhaps no reader's surprise, he's a New York Jewish guy who could easily be mistaken for Rob Reiner.
For twenty years, on classicstoday.com, David Hurwitz has churned out review after review of orchestral music like a one-man review machine, sometimes supplemented by a reviewer named Victor Carr Jr., and occasionally by Victor Carr Sr., both of whom seem to have roughly the same opinions as David Hurwitz so I'm not entirely sure Victor Carr isn't a pseudonym... Generally speaking, on piano literature, he's supplemented by Jed Distler (who's well known enough as a critic that he obviously does exist...), on opera by Robert Levine, on chamber music by Dan Davis, and in choral/early/sacred music by David Vernier. Lately, Hurwitz has been supplemented by Jens Laurson, a very fine critic and occasional twitter correspondent with whom I have a number of mutual acquaintances. Long may their partnership continue, but for the dozen of us around the world who might care, this is a shocking development because certain sentences in their reviews looked uncannily like anonymous sideswipes of each other.
It took Hurwitz perhaps three days of posts before his natural grouchiness got the better of him and he started lobbing all the same grenades as he did in print. But as a longtime Hurwitz reader, I'm surprised it even took three days. Perhaps Hurwitz has mellowed... His print voice set new standards for acerbic in the incredibly staid world of English language music criticism which I grew up reading - doubtless dominated by an Oxbridge cadre at Gramophone Magazine (sorry James but I'm talking about an earlier generation...) who were raised from the earliest age to be polite, their station in life endowing them with comfortable livings either within music or without, and perhaps therefore preferring polite, staid performances that have no whiff of anything that can be accused of 'vulgarity.'
Whatever problems one might have with Hurwitz as a critic, and I have dozens, the fact remains that Hurwitz is perhaps the era's single most interesting voice in classical music criticism. Whereas mainstream publications tiptoe around whatever they want to say, afraid of ruffling feathers, Hurwitz rams through his points like a bull in a china shop. I disagree with Hurwitz, at very least, 50% of the time. I sometimes think he has the aesthetic priorities of an automotive engineer. He approaches music almost as though it were a gadget - as though music were little more than a checklist: if you play all the right notes at the right time with the right balances captured in the right sound, you have a great performance. There's hardly any mention of that divine magic, the spark, the melos, the innigkeit. His aesthetic point of view sometimes strikes me as almost mechanical. The messy glories of old world conductors like Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Koussevitzky, Barbirolli and even Furtwangler seem largely to pass him by. He can surprise you: he has a very human fondness for sloppy but very musical conductors like Bernstein, Kubelik, Jochum, Munch, Harnoncourt, because these are musicians whose warmth gets through to anybody with a pulse. But generally speaking he prefers those old mechanical orchestral recordings of the variety that get everything right without capturing those ecstatic moments of performance greatness that for some of us make life worth living, because, god forbid, you may get a few things wrong along the way.
His big favorites among conductors seem to be the musical drill sergeants whose performances were often reflections of their personalities: Szell, Reiner, Toscanini, Dorati, Ormandy, Ancerl, and their aesthetic offspring like Levine and Dohnanyi and Blomstedt and Mackerras. These are all fine conductors, some of them are truly as great as Hurwitz tells us they are, but if precision is ultimately what you look for in performance, why music? Why not collect watches? The only modern composer whom I seem to remember his going out of the way to sing true songs of praise is for the inoffensive new age ramblings of Einojuhani Rautavaara - who honestly is a fine composer that deserves praise, but come on... A lot of composers are working very hard to get a powerful critic interested in their work, and for any critic of name willing to take the plunge, they could do an enormous world of good for a lot of unknowns. There sometimes seems not a single dull American conductor he won't shower with praise, and hardly a single modern European conductor for whom he has a kind word - he even seems to have soured on once-beloved favorites like Ivan Fischer and Osmo Vänska. I'm eagerly waiting for him to rip his latest favorite, Manfred Honeck (one of mine too), to shreds for the subpar Tchaikovsky 4 released just today.
And yet does it really serve anybody anything to read a critic who holds back his or her opinions? It's one thing when the critic is reviewing unknowns whose career they can break before they even have a decent shot - perhaps I was guilty of that when I was briefly reviewing at the Washington Post, and thank god I learned that lesson early. But against celebrities, critics truly have no power at all except to keep the celebrities honest and make them realize that they pay a price for ever giving less than their best. If a critic believes that a sacred cow of the field is nothing more than an Emperor with no clothes, what is gained by us not hearing their point of view? The best critics are not present to be agreed with, they're present to be argued with. Their writing refocuses your perceptions, sharpens them, deepens them, and on that count, there are very few classical music critics writing on Hurwitz's level, and except maybe Steve Schwartz, nobody writing record reviews at that level of insight.
What is it that makes Hurwitz interesting? Well, the fact is, whatever one feels about how he interprets his information, the amount of information at his disposal is worthy of an encyclopedia. He really, really, really knows his stuff, and it's there for all to see in his reviews. He goes into detail after detail about the scores, the dynamic indications, the tempos, the make of instruments, about which conductors honor which details of the score. Hurwitz is a good writer, and sometimes very funny, but there's no critical cliche of the 'opaque translucence of the winds' and the 'magisterial bath of strings' variety. No Osborne/ Seckerson grandiloquence, just a functional, tool-like precision of language that hammers the points home. I guarantee he speaks with more authority and homework done on these issues than the majority of the conductors he reviews. Major conductors should be consulting him to learn from his knowledge, and I guarantee they would have had he not savaged so many of them in print.
Like the best critics, he is a simple fact of the contemporary music world. You don't get his strengths without his weaknesses, both contribute to the figure he is and were he less flawed, he'd also be much less valuable. In this era when the very survival of the orchestral concerts is now in question, there is no need for an authority like Hurwitz who can render definitive summary judgements and performer fatwas. It would be such a shame were he just another record reviewer who reviews nothing but past performances. The music world needs Hurwitz's chopping block: musicians are better for stepping up to it, critics are better for his pointing out their errors, listeners are better for soaking in his knowledge. Long may Dave Hurwitz continue his service to us.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Tales From the Old New Land - Bereshit - Very Beginning Outline

1894:

Gad works for a Jewish farmer who beats him
Reuven works as servant for a butcher, steals the silverware, and lies about it. 
Yosef goes to goyisher teacher to learn other subjects. Is ostracized by his brothers.
Dina is getting an abortion performed
Levi is schizophrenic who sees demons and angels, 
Dan is an illui who must dodge advances from his Rabbi. 
Judah longs for a beautiful teenaged girl, but her family is moving to Israel.
Zebulun is seeing a prostitute
Issachar works for farm supplier, is accused of cheating goyisher client. 
Naftali practices and drinks with Klezmorim 
Shimon is bullied by goyim
Asher fights back from goyim

A world of nature and magic, both spiritual and godly, but also erotic and pagan.

Some kids learning about science and literature and history on the sly. 

Overwhelming poverty around the family. Everyone is cold in the winter.

Some visiting prostitutes, some lusting after teenage yeshiva girls. 

Background animal noises, noises of hooves and wagon wheels, rustling of wind and leaves. 

An enormous, and extremely argumentative family - two thousand years of tension should be manifest in this family portrait. 



Thirteen separate family portraits of each of the children, none more than three or at most four minutes, each story must assign salient characteristics to the characters.

Swamley Needs a Project - Part 1

Rabbi Swamley: Nu? All dese workaholics, dey doing de writing, de music, dey making videos, and you, you just sit on de toches doing bupkes.

AC Charlap (also known as Evan Tucker): I'm not doing bupkes, I'm trying to think of things to write very hard.

Rabbi Swamley: You're not tinking of dreck! You're eating ice cream and machting starts on fifteen tings so you dun have to do one ting.

AC Charlap: And what have you done with all this time?

Rabbi Swamley: Me? Vat I'm supposed to do? I'm just a Rabbi mit no vork!

AC Charlap: You're in public service and caregiving profession! You should should be volunteering all over Baltimore! Making an example for the entire local community!

Rabbi Swamley: I tried, nobody vants me to volunteer?

AC Charlap: Did you even ask?

Rabbi Swamley: I asked two places. Dey trew me out!

AC Charlap: Are those the places you used to volunteer at where you came home with the black eye because you kept telling the other volunteers they were doing it wrong?

Rabbi Swamley: (shouts) Dey vere doing it wrong! I'm supposed to just let dem serve food mitout making dem make deh homeless say tank you for vat ve're doing fa dem?

Charlap: Wait a minute, so you got banned from volunteering at a soup kitchen because you were trying to make the other volunteers make the homeless people thank them for things which they were doing to serve them.

Rabbi Swamley: Nu? Vat's wrong mit vat I did! Dey should be grateful ve help dem!

Charlap: So in order to make the homeless more grateful to the volunteers you yell at the volunteers.

Rabbi Swamley: Yeh! Vat's tzu understand?

Charlap: (Takes a moment to understand what he's hearing) Did it ever occur to you that they are not doing this for the gratitude?

Rabbi Swamley: Nu! If dey don't get deh gretitude dey got better tings to do mit deir time!

Charlap: Well isn't that their choice rather than yours?

Rabbi Swamley: Nu? It is deir choice! But vy can't I give my opinion about deir choices?!?

Charlap: What kind of nut are you?!

Rabbi Swamley: You're deh fucking nut! You have deh poifect opportunity to do tings and you hevn't ton bupkes!

AC Charlap: Shut the fuck up Swamley. You get all your kicks from criticizing anybody else so you don't have to do anything.

Swamley: I do tings! Vat I do is criticize!

AC Charlap: That's what you do!?!?!?

Swamley: Vy you getting mad? All I do is say my opinion!

Charlap: Fuck you Swamley.

Swamley: Vat I do? All I say is de truth Charlap! You ain't done dreck 'nd whose mit deh surprise about it?

Charlap: You are, without a doubt, the most loathesome, disgusting, repulsive human being anyone has ever met!

Swamley: How cen you say dat?! I'm a fuckin' Rabbi and I help people everyvere!

Charlap: How have you ever helped anyone in your life?!

Swamley: By criticizing dem!

Charlap: Your criticism helps them?

Swamley: Mitout deh criticism dey wouldn't know vat dey doing wrong.

Charlap: Get out of my house.

Swamley: You cen't trow me out!

Charlap: Watch me.

Swamley: I gonna call deh cops.

Charlap: The cops stopped taking your calls remember?

Swamley: So? Is dat my fault?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 5/19/20: Ralph Vaughan Williams (yeah yeah....)

Eh, what the hell, let's do the great Ralph Vaughan Wililiams tonight.
The popular conception of Vaughan Williams is as confused as that of Holst. We know him for a handful of extremely atypical works that make us think he's a composer of lethargically pastoral works that have about as much to do with the real RVW as The Planets do with Holst or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik has to do with Mozart. Vaughan Williams is the subject of perhaps the single greatest compositorial putdown in music history, when upon hearing it, Aaron Copland is said to have commented that 'listening to Vaughan Williams's fifth symphony is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes." Copland should talk.... Copland too is far more complex than just his pastoral classics, but Copland never truly ascended to RVW's ecstatic heights either.
The real Vaughan Williams was the English Bartok or Mussorgsky, who took the folk music of the British isles in its unadorned state and gave it a classical framework which smoothed nothing of its strangeness or its acerbicity.
Composing is one of the very few professions for which it is hard to predict a peak of a composer's powers. So many of the greatest died early, and so many lesser-known composers died early who might have become great. The morbidly obese Vaughan Williams was fully great by 40, but he did not truly hit the peak of his powers until the secure, calm and privileged world of wealth in which formed him was fully destroyed. He was already 60 or 70 by the time he wrote the greatest music of his life, an age by which the majority of the great names of music history had well since passed on. And as only true genius can, RVW rose to the challenges of a new era with an entirely new kind of music. This is not merely a writer of light music, this is one of the very greatest, most visionary composers of the 20th century, and a composer whom by 1940 had fully let go of the 19th.

The Sixth Symphony is, perhaps next to the second, my single favorite of his symphonies. Written in the years immediately post World War II, it can be interpreted as a seer's vision of World War III, complete with explosions, advancing armies, and air battles. But in perhaps the most extraordinary movement RVW ever wrote, it ends with ten minutes of an orchestra playing at no dynamic past pianissimo, perhaps a vision of post-nuclear holocaust, a world without life, when all is null and void.

But the second, the London Symphony, is perhaps his masterpiece, one of the very greatest symphonies ever written: programmatically depicting a day in the life of pre-War London, and yet even the London Symphony has deep intimations of what is to come. Vaughan Williams said that the quiet final moments are inspired by H G Wells's novel Tono-Bungay:
"The last great movement in the London Symphony in which the true scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up ... Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes."
RVW's second symphony was performed just a few months before World War I. It is almost impossible to historically minded readers to read those lines and not think of Sir Edward Gray's intimation on the eve of World War I that 'the lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.' ...and of course, there's the Fourth Symphony, premiered in 1937, a half-hour long orchestral howl from the man who wrote Greensleeves. It seems odd to take Vaughan Williams of all composers to task for being too abrasive, but so unvaried is it in tone that the great miracle of the piece is that it's by the composer of The Lark Ascending and the Greensleeves arrangement. Or the 9th Symphony, which I've heard one major conductor describe over the radio as a description of the spiritual process of dying.



One can find similar intimations of a dark future in the ecstatic 1920's work Sancta Civitas, yet another choral work that sets the Book of Revelation to music, and yet sets it with a kind of hope and yearning that leaves the door open for the apocalypse to transcend its dark premise. And of course, there is Dona Nobis Pacem 'Give us Peace' from the 1930s, which alternates settings of the Latin Mass with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Or his final choral work, the Three Shakespeare Songs, which sets Ariel's creepy lyrics from The Tempest with appropriate otherworldliness. with but a few chords, RVW intimates Shakespeare's immortal mortality.


Vaughan Williams does not belong to England, he belongs to the entire world. Like composers from Beethoven and Mahler to Stravinsky and Bartok, Vaughan Williams dipped his pen into a deep river flowing with alchemical ink that let him see into the distant future simultaneous to the distant past. Like all those other masters, there are other sides to their music - genius is janus-faced and if you think you've mapped every facet of a truly great artist, you will inevitably soon discover another, but In this music, as in that of all the very greatest composers, there is the force of prophecy. And yes, Ralph Vaughan Williams belongs in any conversation of the all-time greatest, and one day, now or generations hence, he will be recognized for the depth and breath of exactly the musician of greatness he is.