Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Playlist: A Guide to Bad Recordings of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto

I was talking to The McBee last weekend about the amazingness of Dvorak’s cello concerto. It goes without saying that it’s the greatest cello concerto ever written for all those musical reasons which you can’t put into words without seeming like an idiot. It has better melodies, livelier rhythms, more beautiful harmonies, and more emotional wallop – not just moreso than any other cello concerto, but perhaps more than any 19th century concerto for any instrument.

(Dvorak – a song composer for the ages)
Dvorak was not a natural composer. He was a natural musician who apparently played both the violin and viola beautifully. His compositions had an effortless command of all the basic musical elements – the only problem is that he rarely knew how to make it interesting for more than five minutes at a time. If he’d stuck with songs and dances, he could have been a miniaturist to rival Schubert and Chopin.

But for better or worse, Dvorak wanted to write long-form compositions. And in the stead of miniatures he wrote opera after opera, symphony after symphony, every one of which has dull spots as he clumsily negotiates the clichés of German symphonic development. Nothing Dvorak wrote is without interest, and yet there is so much music by him that feels like all the good parts should be spliced together by an editor with a good pair of scissors and no conscience (Stokowski?).

Even most of his greatest works – the New World Symphony, the late sacred music, the American Quartet and the A-Major Piano Quintet – all of it has dull spots. The only exception in this regard is the Cello Concerto. It is the one long-form work by Dvorak that is absolutely perfect. A decent performance will hold our attention and never let us go. It is as moving and exciting in the first bar as it is in the last. So how inspiring would Dvorak’s Cello Concerto be if its performances were any good?

The McBee inspired me to go back and listen to performances of it. He maintained that Yo-Yo Ma was the best performer of the piece, I said that it was Rostropovich. I went back and listened to them both. Sure enough, Yo-Yo Ma was precisely as I remembered. Exciting, charismatic, extraordinarily expressive, and so exaggerated that I almost felt queasy. The slow, lyrical sections were milked to the point that the baby was drowning. So this is what diabetes feels like.

(Vaclav Talich’s Dvorak)

I then went back to good old Mstislav Rostropovich, or should I say young Rostropovich? When I was 20, I went to a record store in Prague and bought a recording of a 25-year-old (but still bald) Rostropovich performing the Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic and their fabled music director – Vaclav Talich. Talich learned Dvorak’s great scores at the feet of the composer himself, and as conductors go, his authority is final. You hear the inimitable Czech Philharmonic sound which Talich worked so assiduously to cultivate that’s so perfect for Dvorak. When every other orchestra plays Dvorak, Dvorak sounds gruff. When the Czech Philharmonic plays him, it sounds like a folky version of Schubert or Mozart.

…So why is this recording so bland? Why does every single phrasing and dynamic marking in the score seem to go unheeded? Why is the entire score played at almost a single tempo when Dvorak is constantly indicating tempo changes? Why is everything played at a comfortable jaunt rather than with the manic Mahlerian frenzies which Dvorak clearly wanted?  Rostropovich’s later recordings are more interesting, but at no point does Slava feel as though he cares much about what Dvorak wants. He’s doing his own thing, making his own points, and I have no problem with that if what the performer’s doing is more interesting than what’s written on the page (it often is). But in this case, Slava’s Dvorak is no improvement on Dvorak’s Dvorak.  

Later in his career, Slava made something of a religion of this piece. While Slava (perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest instrumentalist) occupied himself with hundreds of more interesting projects, he funded them by making famous recording after famous recording of this piece with high prestige conductors: Karajan, Giulini, Ozawa. Whereas Yo-Yo Ma at least seems like he’s staying within the general guidelines of Dvorak’s phrasing and dynamics, Rostropovich’s phrasing is just plain random. ‘Oooh! This is interesting’ Slava seems to be saying in another in a series of moments brought on by interpretive ADD. It’s bloated, inflated approach full of well-manicured, luxurient sounds…but why does it exist?

(Pablo Casals)

And hearing the comfortableness of Slava makes me long for a more dramatic approach. I then remember that first recording, the ‘classic’ Dvorak Cello Concerto. Pablo Casals in 1939 with the Czech Philharmonic and George Szell conducting. Even with the Czech Philharmonic, you lose the Czech ‘tang’ right away through the antiquated sound. But, for once, it’s nice to finally hear things at Dvorak’s tempos. The orchestral accompaniment is truly fantastic. Szell really understood Dvorak and would loosen up quite a bit for his more folky music. But then Pablo comes in… and this giant of the 20th century, this sensitive humanitarian of a musician should be perfect for this most human of pieces. Yet like his two great heirs, the Dvorak completely eludes him. After a few minutes, you begin to notice something striking… he does not play a single soft dynamic. Whereas Yo-Yo Ma is soporific and sentimental, Casals is damn brutal.

(Feuermann playing Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto)

Still more brutal than Casals is Emanuel Feuermann, whom it seems that nobody told that the Dvorak Cello concerto is not a showpiece. This is, for once, a performance that’s faster than Dvorak wanted it. And it’s kind of terrifying how easily this loveable piece can be turned into something resembling Prokofiev, and would be even if the recorded sound didn’t match the performance in shrillness.

Still soppier than Yo-Yo is Jackie. No one - not Slava, not Yo-Yo, not Feuermann, not even Casals - had a more charismatic way with that instrument than Jacqueline Du Pre. Yet she pulls the entire piece apart, and all that effort which Dvorak made to build a perfectly constructed piece of music was for naught.

Still soppier than Jackie is Mischa. Mischa Maiski is the cellist you turn to when the extremes of every other cellist are just not extreme enough. In all fairness to Maisky, three things should be mentioned. 1. He was working with Leonard Bernstein who at the end of his life pushed every extreme as far as he could get. 2. He made another recording of this piece with Zubin Mehta that was not nearly as extreme in its slow speeds as the slow sections this. 3. Except on issues of tempo, he’s hewing much closer to Dvorak’s dynamics and phrasing than most cellists dare. Even so…jeez….

But most cellists fall into the Slava category – Piatagorsky, Tortellier, Starker, Fournier, Rose, Mork, Isserlis – they all simply seem too lazy to put together a great performance - as though they’re hauling out their cello for yet another performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto. They all sound tired of this piece. I don’t doubt it takes an enormous amount of effort to put it together, but imagine what would happen if some cellist was determined to play this piece with the dedication they’d give to a world premiere. Every time people talk about the tiredness of the classical music world, the cliché is mentioned that maybe we ought to ban certain pieces for a while so we can come to them afresh. I doubt there’s a single piece of music which seems to need such a ban more than the Dvorak Cello Concerto. To hear this piece properly, really hear it, we need a hybrid with Pablo Casals’s discipline and Yo-Yo Ma’s care. In the meantime, to truly hear the greatness of this piece, listen to Maisky and Bernstein once, then never listen to them again.

(Slava at the Proms Part I)

Though maybe there’s one way to get closer to its greatness. I once found a youtube clip that always burns in my mind as the best performance I’ll ever hear of this piece – but it’s only of the last movement. It was Slava Rostropovich in 1974, right after he was forced to defect from the Soviet Union for offering shelter to Soviet dissidents. There was the greatest classical performer of my lifetime, probably penniless at that moment, playing his calling card at the Proms at Royal Albert Hall with a regional British orchestra (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) and a C-List conductor (Charles Groves). As never before or since, Slava was honoring the tempos and dynamics, not perfectly but well enough to show he cared. He played with an urgency we never again heard from him in this piece which he played ad nauseum.  THIS is the greatness of Dvorak.

(Part II)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

800 Words: Jewish Intolerance Part III

No religion or culture is more beholden to history than Judaism. Is there any way to prevent that?

…Nostalgia is huge in the Jewish religion – not as huge as for Christians or Muslims, but huge nevertheless. Two-thousand years after we lost it, we’re all still paying lip service to the fact that our most cherished goal is to slaughter goats on the world’s most prized piece of real estate. Our religion would have us believe that this is what our ancestors endured two-thousand of persecution to accomplish. If that is the case, I’m getting my circumcision reversed tomorrow.

The great strength and weakness of Jewish communities is that they are intractably slow in adapting to new circumstances. Even the Catholic Church changes faster. The centuries pass, empires rise and fall; but Orthodox Jews still chant the same prayers, circumcise every male child, don’t eat pork, refuse to mix linen and wool in their clothes, and segregate women from men. It is the Jewish mentality to find what works, and then to dig our fingernails into that solution as far into posterity as they go. There will be female priests in the Catholic Church long before there are female Orthodox Rabbis.

It is a mentality that goes nearly as far into the more recent branches of Judaism as it does into orthodoxy. However far Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, or Assimilationist Jews rise, the mentality seems to stay the same. History goes on, the debates within a society rage, but to a certain extent – it’s other people’s problem. I believe that there’s a part of every Jewish person which feels this way, and Jewish people who are particularly committed to another movement do so in part as a rebellion against their Jewish background; which like Chinese civilization, sees the concerns of the moment as the blink of an eye within time’s larger span.

In civilization after civilization, when things are at their best, we Jews begin to enter a state of denial; and the denial only increases in intensity as the years go on. Rather than accept that things are not as good as they once were, we try to maintain them precisely as they were long past when it was possible. At the end of the last century, many Jews seemed to believe that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Josef II, and his beneficent tolerance of Jews, would live forever. But World War I, ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the 20’s, many Jews believed that the Weimar Republic could last – they even believed it would return after Hitler was elected Chancellor. By the 30’s, many Jews still believed that Stalin and the Soviet Union would be the savior of the Jewish people – much good that did us.

In all those cases, many Jews believed in the permanence of their position well past the point that they went down with the countries who housed them. By the time most Jews realized there was no place for them in Central or Eastern Europe, it was too late to save themselves. The Jews with enough foresight to emigrate to Israel and America survived. They too believe in the permanence of their well-being in these states. For nearly a hundred years, they’ve been right. But for how much longer will they be?

In 2012, we are faced – as always – with a Jewish state on the perpetual verge of extinction – encircled on all sides by hostile, dangerous enemies and ruled by a right-wing government who believes that enough displays of force will intimidate their enemies into preventing attacks. America is still the greatest shelter the Jewish people have ever had, yet America is changing more quickly than we can imagine. We no longer live in the mid-20th century, and the certainties of that era have long since ended. Yet many Jews act as though our good treatment will be permanent.

Perhaps there’s good reason to feel this way.  America’s not going anywhere any time soon, and Israel is perhaps the one country in the world to maintain a boom economy through the Great Recession. Nevertheless, America, Israel, and their relationships are changing.

Even in the worst possible situation - even if the Tea Party is able to dictate terms to America’s government, even if America’s entire middle class is obliterated, even if all of America's works are privately owned by Chinese investors – America’s Jews will be just fine. For better or worse, it’s true that a disproportionate number of Jews make upper class incomes (the average Jewish household makes $50,000 a year, $8,000 more than the average US household) – but if the Middle Class vanishes, Jewish charities will ensure that other Jews are relatively well provided for in comparison to other Americans. Like in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the income of the wealthy will not be threatened, and Jews will continue to contribute disproportionately to American society – perhaps more than ever. Meanwhile, Israel will remain, as ever, industrious and innovative. And while the average income in the rest of the world plummets, Israel will continue to thrive. And because Israel thrives, wealthy people will invest more and more money into Israel. And thus would likely begin anew all the conspiracy theories about Jewish control, corruption, and conspiracy. We know how that ends…

I have no idea how far in the future the next atrocity against the Jewish people will occur. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that another such atrocity will most definitely happen. And Jews will unwittingly do everything within their power to speed up the process. Every Jew should read Amos Elon’s unforgettable book about the Jews of Germany: The Pity of It All. Towards the end, Elon discusses how German Jews were the last people to maintain their belief in the Weimar Republic. Even during the Great Depression as Nazis were assassinating hundreds of political figures, Jews believed that Nazism was no more a threat to Germany than Communism, and if Jews simply refused to take a side and pay no heed to prevailing winds, this too would pass.

American Jews are well-known for their liberalism, but reports of Jewish liberalism were always a bit exaggerated. Ronald Reagan got 39% of the Jewish vote to Jimmy Carter’s 45 in 1980. Dwight Eisenhower (no friend of Israel) got 40% of the Jewish vote against Adlai Stevenson’s 60 in 1956. Jews have always been sensitive (some – not me, would say oversensitive) about shifts to anti-semitism, and most Jews have always been wary of any extreme belief. Sometimes, this charge against extremism comes at the worst moments. Running the centrist Americans Elect movement to provide a moderate alternative in this election was Peter Ackerman – chairman of Rockport Capital, former head of Freedom House and founder of the International Center on Violent Conflict . Its principal donor was Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. Its primary voice in the press was Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Well-known Jews all, but they founded this movement at the very moment when it was clear that centrism was no longer a legitimate option for America in the foreseeable future. America had just elected a Democratic president whose entire campaign was founded on a message of unity, and the overtures to unify government were completely re-buffed by Republicans. Democrats are now the American party of the center as well as the left, yet many Jews persist in the thought that bipartisanship is still an option.

While assimilated American Jews embrace the left, the Orthodox community goes further and further into the arms of America’s Religious Right. The Religious Right not only believes in the bellicose policies of the Israeli right wing, they actively encourage it and wish Israel were moreso. But what happens if conservative religious people in America become destitute and their leaders require a scapegoat to explain why? What happens if Arab countries embrace democracy and are no longer threats to America? What happens if a significant portion of American Christians end up working for Israeli corporations without American government guaranteeing them a living wage? Will there be any reason for this alliance to continue?

Those Jews who wish to maintain some semblance of religion are caught in the middle. Taking a stand with one or the other is equated in their minds with taking a stand on Judaism between orthodoxy and non-belief. And just as it happened before, and just as it will one day happen again, Jews will long for a solution that does not exist until after it’s too late. I guarantee you, Jews will be the last ethnic group still looking back to the wonderful days of bipartisanship when every other group’s abandoned it for an entire lifetime. Just as Jews are to parties, no group has a longer track record to being late to historical realizations than the Jewish people. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

800 Words: Jewish Intolerance - Part II


And yet Judaism still remains. Why? Because Judaism is the purest religion of all.

“The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innvation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made… Now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities… Innovation is the salient energy; Conservatism the pause on the last movement.”

-          Ralph Waldo Emerson

For everything there is a season, and a 
time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die; 
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal; 
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; 
a time to mourn, and a time to dance. . . .

-          Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

Both Christianity and Islam seek to dominate history – their religions are grounded in the belief that the world will only become a great place when the dominion of Christ or Muhammed is total. Judaism does not seek to dominate history; Judaism seeks to be immune from it. At the heart of Judaism is a superbly ironic paradox:  Our religion is very strict in its guidelines to its adherents, but it does so because it sees the world as a place in need of accommodation. It is profitless to chase the wind, and Judaism therefore instructs its followers conduct themselves strictly so that they may blow with it. So let it never be said that religion does not blow.

It is because the world is not an accommodating place that Jews bend over backwards to accommodate it. But occasionally the world becomes an accommodating place, and when it does, no civilization is less equipped to deal with acceptance from the world than Jews. Judaism is a prescription for how to deal with a world that is adverse to it, and at the historical moments when Judaism is on the verge of mainstream acceptance, Jews inevitably (and entirely unwittingly) seem to shoot the gift-horse in the mouth.

No religion puts greater stress on rationalism. No religion puts greater faith in the resolution of conflict through discussion. No religion puts greater emphasis on education, reason, and empiricism. It is a survival kit for how to be a light unto nations when the world goes dark. But what about when some of the world is ruled by light? However dim?

All religions are, in a sense, a belief in a higher power. When you surrender your will to a man upstairs, all the theological talk about free will is at best a weakened brew. Once God is in the driver’s seat, you’ve surrendered a large part of your will for the security that comes with knowing your place in the universe. Those of us without that security must doubt our place in the universe, and that is far too scary a proposition for many people.

The truth is that Judaism doesn’t provide much comfort for those who want to know what happens to us after we die. There is no real hell in Judaism, just a very brief purgatory that’s inevitably over within a year (hence why mourners say Kaddish for eleven months). There is no canonical text about what happens in the afterlife, only Rabbinical speculation. The afterlife is of very little concern to Jews. What is of concern is how to conduct ourselves in our own lives.

The genius of the Jewish religion is to provide a series of laws so inconsequential, so obsessive, so controlling, that its adherents don’t have the time or mental effort to concern themselves with anything but their proper observance. Judaism prospers through the eons because it is probably the ultimate surrendering of free will which mankind has yet conceived. It takes for granted that people’s vices are so overwhelming that they cannot be trusted to control themselves. Instead, Judaism directs their observers’ vices – their insecurity, their vanity, their desire for control – into finding the proper observance for every possible hypothetical to which Judaism’s 613 laws pertain.

When I call it the ‘ultimate surrendering of free will,’ I don’t necessarily mean it as a bad thing – perhaps it’s even a good one. Judaism does not require the surrender of free will in the same way that Fascism or Communism or Radical Islam does. There is no authority so final in our religion that a particular interpretation must be considered final. Every observant Jew is a partner in this social compact, which means that two-thousand years of Jewish willpower has gone into debate over precisely how we will surrender our wills to God. No religion takes theology more seriously than Judaism, and the debate of precisely how we surrender our free will is continually evolving and takes on new meanings for every generation through the millennia. In this way, Judaism is much like capitalism or republican governance – in which people’s vices are turned on themselves so that they may become virtues. But if a republic or capitalist society does this to a certain extent, then Judaism – by virtue of being a religion – does the same to the nth degree.

And this leads us to a second Jewish paradox that’s just as inexplicable. When Jews are first accepted into society, they quickly establish themselves as a yeast (to use a Hitchens metaphor) that enables a society to rise up and achieve its greater potential  – intellectual potential, economic potential, and yes, moral potential. With the help of a Jewish population, all societies will inevitably become more diverse and more tolerant simply by welcoming Jews into their population. But these societies also attach themselves to a culture that promotes learning and industry.

 And yet, it’s precisely because Jews have been such a vital part in the success of so many societies that they’re inevitably blamed when those same societies experience failure. When a society rejects its Jews, it rejects tolerance, it rejects open exchange, it rejects learning, and it rejects industry. It openly embraces irrational superstition over rational tolerance (and let’s be clear, rational intolerance is just as bad…), and once irrationality is embraced, it’s not too long before mass murder and a culture of death begin to seem like better ideas than they once were.  One could make a great argument for the fact that there is a direct correlation between the health of a society and their treatment of Jews. When the society begins to rot and human life is cheap, so is the opinion in which Jews are held. And we Jews, allegedly intelligent enough to control the world by private conspiracy, are completely powerless every time the world gets volatile. Judaism survives from age to age because it seeks to be immune from history. But the price for the survival is that no religion, and no culture, is more beholden to history than Judaism. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

800 Words: Facebook Likes

In the world of stalking, facebook pages tell you disappointingly little. If you don’t already know the person, it tells you very little at all and very little worth knowing. The best you can do is process the data to say ‘this person seems interesting’ or ‘God, I hope I don’t get to know that person any better…’90% of the time, a person’s facebook posts feel like TMI. If a person you don’t know lists an interesting little tidbit, it’s not uncommon to think to yourself ‘that pretentious little _____’ or ‘why is this person bothering me with this information?’ (And I say this knowing that there are few worse offenders...) When you don’t know other people, you don’t feel as though you’re stalking them, you feel as though they’re stalking you with their information. It’s only when you do know the other person that facebook pages get interesting.

On the page, everybody is dull. A random collection of facts about a person, even a collection of status updates, tells you very little about the person. And anyone whose status updates are particularly self-revealing is a person you want to know less: ‘Aaargh! I hate the world. Especially my sister! Yes you’re an ugly whore who slept with my fiancée!!!!’ To a limit, it’s entertaining to read those sorts of update. Anybody who uses facebook to spill their guts to the world clearly needs their internet liscence revoked (is it better to do that on a blog?...)

But when you know the person, and you see the patterns of their allegiances and the passions they broadcast, the life story falls into place. Like any good detective, you begin piecing together the other person’s biography – not only their talents, but also what’s close to their hearts, what they believe in, and how they came to be the person you now know.

There are lots of people who don’t post on facebook. Though there are some exceptions to this rule, these people generally go by the name ‘fulfilled people’ – those mythical creatures whose lives are blissfully self-contained that they need nothing more than they already have. They have no need to broadcast its contents to anyone outside their immediate contacts. I’ve gone back and forth in my life between being green with envious lust for these people, and simply wanting to kill them. But one day I woke up and realized something truly important for the cause of my own happiness: ‘happy’ people like them are generally incredibly boring. Their focus is so self-contained, their need to experience the world outside theirs so miniscule, that they’re utterly disconnected from reality. They know as well as we do, if they experienced even a modicum of time outside of the sealed world in which they’re comfortable, they’d be as miserable as the rest of us. These people don’t need to be killed, they need to be defeated; and they need to be defeated before they kill the rest of us. Nobody in the world was a nicer guy than Robespierre (I’ve got to stop comparing everything to totalitarian dictators…).

It’s likely that all happy people are happy in the same way, whereas all interesting people are interesting in different ways. Is being interesting mutually exclusive from being happy? Probably not, but a large part of a person being interesting implies that there were setbacks on the path to self-creation. And there is nothing in life more unfortunate than the fact that the frustrations and drama of life is what makes it interesting.

But through those frustrations, whatever they may be, we pick up our habits, our interests, our tics and quirks – and when we do, we pick up those habits which make us more vulnerable. Nobody will get made fun of if they like Mumford and Sons or Dave Matthews Band (at least in a white area), but anybody who admits to preferring Beethoven or Bing Crosby to either is likely to be misunderstood, and therefore at some point in their lives they’ll be ostracized for it - which in turn creates more frustration, and hopefully makes us more interesting still. Not so interesting that we become disgruntled postal workers who shoot everybody but interesting enough that we find worthy outlets for our efforts.

(does that cliché work anymore?)

And once we find worthy outlets for our efforts, we can hopefully find friends who appreciate them. But this is the paradox at the heart of friendship: the reason friendship is so important is that any effort worth making is guaranteed to be misunderstood. It’s very easy for people to bond over a liking of The Beatles or a Spielberg movie  – they’re safe, they’re things everybody knows. To take one example, it’s both more worthwhile and far less easy for friends to discuss a book that only other one person you know has read, and your interpretations of it are very different, and you gravitate towards such obscure fare because you’re both deeply unsatisfied with a culture in which everyone seems so similar to begin with. Before long, you’re reading your dissatisfaction into the other person.  Both of you may hate the conformity of the culture you’re trying to rebel against, but if you’re not careful, you begin to read into that other person all the reasons why a culture more sympathetic to you does not exist, and this person becomes a shorthand for why the world is not more like the way you see it.  

Among those in my closest group of friends, there are two that strike me right now – too different to realize how similar they are. Like me, though differently to each other as much as to me, their lives are defined by an encyclopedic musical obsession. They know each other and we all went to college together, yet unlike mine with them (for once), their friendship seems to be defined by a long series of misunderstandings. Both are roughly my age and both, in their way, are New Yorkers to the marrow. One is the New York of the mid-century; growing up in New Jersey having his kishkes filled with high-prestige music, theater, and galleries in the city. The other is the New York of the late century; having grown up a fixture in artfilm theaters, small music venues, and independent record stores. The former’s music Likes feel like an honor roll of great musicians with a vast public, the latter an honor roll of great hermetic musicians of whom most of you will have never heard. In their way, their misunderstandings are the misunderstandings of an entire city put into the sometimes intersecting mid-Atlantic young adulthoods of our exceedingly weird social circles. One grew up in the New Jersey of urban flight, the other grew up in the New York City of urban decay. One is Manhattan, the other is Brooklyn. One is the optimism of the early 60’s, the other is the realism of the 70’s. One is Frank Sinatra, the other Woody Allen. I often wonder to myself if they’d be almost precisely the other person if they’d lived each other’s lives. And I sometimes wonder if they do too.

There are a number of people over the years with whom I’ve had similar long-term experiences and could draw similar parallels. No doubt I will before too long given my track record of self-revelation on this thing. The point remains that senseless irritation between even the best people is inevitable, and happens for the simple reason that the issues about which they’re passionate really do matter. When people throw their curiosity overboard, they become boring people. It is only people who wear their enthusiasms on their sleeves who inspire real affection, and therefore inspire real misunderstandings. It is only boring people who don’t have to live in fear of being misunderstood.

Facebook is a somewhat useless tool for people whom you don’t know. But for friends, it’s incredibly useful. You look at the shorthand things they put up on their respective walls, you take the things you already know about them, and by piecing all that information together, you peel another layer of the onion.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Playlist: Late Randy Newman

To paraphrase Bill Murray: There are two types of people in this world, those who love Randy Newman, and those who hate him (What About Bob?...underrated movie everybody should watch). Those of us who love Randy Newman should rise up and kill the other type. If the lyrics are completely made up on the spot with no effort put into them, how can they be so spot-on so often? How are the arrangements not just so stunningly complex (and not just for a usual singer/songwriter album), but also beautiful? Leonard Cohen is life in an ashram, Johnny Cash is life in a dive bar, Bob Dylan is life on the open American road. Randy Newman is life. Life as it happens, life as it is, life in all its chaos; random, sentimental and sadistic, real and surreal, funny and sad, political and personal, abstract and direct, deep and cheap. Life.

We're not even getting into Randy Newman's musical: Faust. But just look at the original cast:

...Somehow, the idea of James Taylor as the Lord makes you understand why the Devil wants to rebel...

My Country (LastFM)

Losing You

A Few Words In Defense of Our Country


A Piece of the Pie

Every Time It Rains (Joe Cocker cover)

Korean Parents

I Miss You

The Great Nations of Europe

Feels Like Home

The World Isn't Fair

Better off Dead

Going Home (Last FM)

I'm Dreaming of a White President

When I'm Gone

And of could we leave out this?:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Letter To My Rabbi

Dear Rabbi ________,

I'm sure you're extremely busy right now. But I do want to write you to say that while I was very moved by your second day Rosh Hashana Sermon (minus the first five minutes...I had to listen from outside), I have to take very real issue with one of your sentiments. One that I think may compromise how you're remembered by your congregants and their children. I agree with you that we live in a time of excess and extremes. But I see the extremes as coming from one side of America, not the other. And I think in ten years you may have no choice but to come around to that point of view as well. 

I'm not a typical educated member of my generation. I consider myself a liberal, but I'm not a member of the left. I consider myself in the center, and it's because I'm in the center that I see liberal democrats as the only possible option. I realize that this is in part a generational perception, but please consider how my generation grew up. When we were in high school, we watched as Newt Gingrich insisted on shutting down the government rather than compromise on the Federal Budget. We watched as President Clinton was impeached for perjury after lying on an inconsequential issue that he should never have been made to testify about in the first place. Our first voting election was decided by the Supreme Court on partisan lines to stop a recount after the very real possibility of election fraud in Florida. We were just college students when 9/11 occurred, and we later heard from Richard Clarke that George Bush did not take the threat seriously enough to take very simple measures to prevent it. We were of draft age when the Iraq War happened, a war of choice for which we all eventually learned there was no discernible objective. We experienced a second election in which there was a possibility of election fraud in Ohio that was never pursued. It is entirely possible that in a century, historians will look at the 2000's and say that it was an era that was ruled by a Coup d'etat. 

Were I of your generation, I'd have looked at the riots of the sixties, the rise of Goldwater and Reagan on one hand and the rise of McGovern and Jesse Jackson on the other and concluded that moderation was the only sensible option. But I'm not of your generation, and it's because I believe in moderation that I have to place blame and say that there is no moral equivalence between the Republicans and Democrats. To say otherwise is just as untrue as to say that there is moral equivalence between the Palestinian government and the Israeli one. 

There is no extreme left in this country that bears mentioning. There is a single socialist senator (Bernie Sanders), there's no talk of nationalizing industries, no serious talk of allying with Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad against their antagonists, no talk of raising taxes for the rich beyond 35% of their income (compare that to the 1950's, when there was a marginal tax rate on the rich of 94%, and this was during the Eisenhower administration!). Real leftist figures like Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich are marginal figures in the Democratic Party, whereas Paul Ryan is the vice-presidential nominee for the Republicans. Every time a leader of your generation laments that there is a decline in bipartisanship and says that both sides are equally responsible, you are aiding and abetting the decline of Democracy in America. 

I know that your advocacy of bipartisanship and reservations about Obama are in large part due to Israel. But Obama realizes one thing that Bush never did, which is that if Israel is to survive into the 22nd century, it must be saved from itself. The Israeli Knesset is for all intents and purposes a right-wing supermajority, and the only thing preventing them from launching full-scale attacks on the Iranian nuclear program is Obama. To attack Iran or anywhere else in the current political climate would be to invite a potential apocalypse on Israel. Any chance the Arab Spring has of working would immediately be crushed and Radical Islamists who preach the destruction of Israel would sail into victory, each of which might try to build a similar nuclear program. Even if Iran doesn't build a bomb, they can simply order one from Pakistan, and if Pakistan has a radical Islamist government, they'll be more than happy to provide whatever amount of nuclear weapons Iran would like to have. We probably disagree about Obama's position on the settlements - I don't think he believes for a moment that peace will be achieved if only Israel withdraws from them. But in order to appease these very volatile places, he has to say he does. I'm not a dove because I don't take the threat of Israeli security seriously, I'm a dove because I think hawks don't take the threat to Israeli security seriously enough. 

Many people of your generation lament that the American idyll of the mid-20th century is no longer there. But my generation never knew that world. We have to deal with the reality of a world we'll be living in for the next half-century. And for the moment, the reality is that there is one party that is the party of democracy, and one party that is the party of authoritarianism and corruption. Liberals want a partner in peace, but there is no partner in peace.

Shana Tova to you and your family, I know your Yom Kippur sermons will be just as wonderful,

Evan Tucker

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

800 Words: Jewish Intolerance (Part I)

It will surprise me if I ever develop the patience to read more than a page of Spinoza’s Ethics at a time. I know that many people think of Spinoza as the most powerful thinker of the modern age, I know that he is the most important Jewish philosopher of all time, I know that he is even the first secular Jew. But his writing is perhaps the greatest insomnia cure I’ve ever found. Spinoza’s Ethics is an agonizingly slow slog through a thought puzzle that reads like the world’s most tedious legal brief. His conclusions are cold and disquieting, and if the world is truly the way Spinoza imagines it – I don’t want to know. He puts me to sleep within two-thirds of a page – believe me, I’ve tested this (ok…maybe not).

I’m not the most well-read philosophy student, but I have a bias against the work of any thinker who didn’t take the time to make his work readable. If the thought is too complex to be properly understood by all but the most fanatical admirer, it dismisses everybody who might look at it critically. Life’s too short to waste on books we don’t like, so such thinkers automatically become boosted by supporters who can allege that their critics haven’t read the work close enough to understand it– they’re probably right about those critics, but the admirers are probably wrong too. Most writers who hide behind an excess of difficulty probably have a reason for doing so. Nevertheless, among philosophers I’ll probably never read, I have a soft spot for Spinoza.

Bento de Espinoza was the son of a Portuguese immigrant who fled to the “New Jerusalem” of 17th century Amsterdam. The Baroque Amsterdam of Rembrandt was the freest center of Jewish practice, learning, and tolerance since Medieval Spain. Unfortunately, even in this liberal environment, the New Jerusalem turned out to be a little too much like the old, and the murderous spirit of Samuel and Herod was enlivened anew. Fifteen years before the Amsterdam Synagogue excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, the community had driven another free thinker named Uriel da Costa to suicide after burning his books, fining him into penury and excommunicating him. And there were apparently many more such incidents in Jewish Amsterdam.

What is still little known about the Spinoza affair is that the excommunication (or Cherem) was the final option they chose to silence him after many were tried. First they tried to convert him, then to threaten him, then to bribe him, one member of the community even tried to murder him. When all these attempts to bring him back to orthodoxy failed, they issued an edict that is much more readable than anything in Spinoza:

The Lords of the ma'amad (judgement), having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Espinoza, have endeavord by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and born witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of the matter; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable chachamin (wise men), they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By the decree of the angels, and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation, in front of these holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys, and with all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells (cubits) of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

All Spinoza wanted to do was to live a life of serious contemplation and publish his harmless beliefs. When his father died, he said Kaddish for the prescribed eleven months. When his sister disputed his claim to inheritance, he renounced it. And just as our ancestors once put Zecharia to death, and all the unnumbered unnamed prophets in the time of Elijah, we once more sent one of the best of us into a life of isolation, without enjoyment or honor; a Jew among Jews. And just as so many Jews have since the beginning of recorded history, Spinoza’s isolation spurred him to more intense study, deeper perception, and more extraordinary achievement.

We Jews are people, no better or worse than others, and when given the reins of power can display all the same symptoms of intolerance, authoritarianism, and inhumanity. Just because someone does the right thing by us does not mean that we will do the right thing by others. Just as sufferers of imperialism and racism sometimes exhibit all the same traits of their captors when finally achieving their independence, we can exhibit all the same traits after being liberated from death camps, pogroms, and lack of sovereignty. It’s in no way a result of the special suffering we’ve undergone, it’s a question of being human and adjusting to the uncertainty of new circumstances. We’re no better or worse in this regard than any other civilization and I suppose a point can legitimately be made that it’s remarkable how little wrong we’ve committed considering what was perpetrated against us. The consequences of freedom are always complex, and within every group of people there are authoritarians and democrats, true leaders and demagogues, strong people who keep their humanity in the face of the temptation to forswear it, and weak ones who renounce it at the first opportunity.

The only difference is that Jews have so seldom been granted their autonomy that the suffering which Jewish rule inflicted is much more highlighted. Compared to those who suffered under the thumb of English history, or Catholic history, there are far fewer sufferers under Jews. We Jews are sufferers, not sufferees. And since we are so, the reaction to seeing Jews persecuting others is forever disproportionate. A small but well-known community who suffered at the hands of nearly every major world civilization will always be foremost in the mind of civilization’s descendents; the image of oppressive Jews is therefore more visceral in the minds of Europeans than the image of oppressive Koreans or even Saudi Arabians. So if those descendents want nothing so much as to redress the wrongs of their ancestors, they will forever see Jews as their biggest impediment.

Of all the world’s major religions, Judaism is the most human. It accepts the limitations of human folly, and it makes barely any attempt to change people’s nature. Rather than change it, Judaism attempts to contain human nature to its most rigid possible form. That Judaism has preserved itself in spite of so many wrongs committed against it is testament to how successful it’s been at domesticating the human beast. Rather than telling its adherents that it’s best to renounce sex, Judaism advises sex at the proper times. Rather than telling its adherents that it’s best to embrace poverty, Judaism puts emphasis on charity and lets its people keep a majority of the wealth for themselves (hence the stereotype…). Rather than telling its adherents that it’s best to renounce anger, Judaism has a huge maze of laws so that all wrongs can be redressed. Indeed, Judaism is thick with laws and commentary for every conceivable practical question. And in cases when these questions cannot be resolved clearly, orthodox Jews have maintained rabbinical courts for two-thousand years in which scholars can determine the proper outcome.  Judaism has survived through so many adverse circumstances through the millennia because it is the world’s most practical religion. But it is not inherently superb at tolerating disagreement. In a religion where commentary and debate is so well-prized, somebody needs to be right.

Judaism’s emphasis on law and custom preserved it for two-thousand years of exile. It protected Jews from the worst excesses of all civilizations, and while other civilizations lost their bearings in the chaos of history, no contingency has ever happened in Jewish history for which Jews were not fully prepared to preserve themselves. The pre-war European culture has all but disappeared, but the Jewish culture they tried to wipe out still thrives elsewhere.

The fundamental difference between Judaism and other cultures is not a question of belief, or even moderation, it is a question of preparedness. The rabbinical sages of the Roman era realized that they needed to build a boat that would not break through any storm, and so they created a religion of laws that could be kept in any place, through any circumstance. Wherever Jews found themselves, they were instantly identifiable, with a common language and common customs for food, dress, and ritual.  Wherever Jews went, they were at home with other Jews, and never at home in the Gentile world. As a result, Jews were discriminated against, Jews were ostracized, Jews were even killed, yet throughout it all, the community never broke. Judaism did not last because God protected us. We lasted because we found an indestructible formula.

But the indestructible nature of our religion comes at a terrible price. This religion of the downcast is built for survival in a perpetual disaster mode.  And during those rare periods when we stumble on success, Judaism finds a way to snatch disaster from the jaws of prosperity. The formula which provides Jews with a blueprint for stratospheric success in cultures where they’re accepted also prove a formula for catostrophic downfall. All privileged Jews have to make a choice; between a religion with hundreds of pointless laws and a history of persecution or a life among the majority, free from the ties that bind them to their constricting, dangerous roots. Whatever one believes about Jewish assimilation, it’s not hard to see why privileged Jews assimilate.

And as more Jews assimilate, the remaining Jews have less and less in common with their neighbors. As they were when they first entered America, or Germany, or Holland, or Spain, they are viewed once again as provincial outsiders, sponges capable of contributing nothing to society except decay. The Jewish, once the prized engine in the rise of so many civilizations, invariably become perceived as the stumbling block that prevents their nations from achieving their full greatness. And they therefore must be removed from society by any means necessary: discrimination,  persecution, exile, even death. And in their zeal to rid their countries of this ‘leach’ there is no difference between the Jew who wants to assimilate and the Jew who wants to remain Jewish. When taken to the meat grinder, all Jews become the same. Whereas all these societies once prided themselves on their liberalness, their tolerance, and their diversity; they come to pride themselves on their purity and each longs to rid the world of the Jewish pestilence.

And still, Judaism will remain. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sunday, September 16, 2012

800 Words: The Evil Fantasy of Gotterdammerung

(Yes, that’s THE Christopher Lee singing Hagen’s Watch. Not very well…but I suppose that’s the point.)

The first time I watched Gotterdammerung all the way through was during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college – a videocassette in the American University library of the Met’s recently retired production from the late 80’s. Parts were unspeakably dull and stupid, and yet the parts that weren’t…

(Matti Salminen shows how it’s done)

I awoke that night bathed in a cold sweat, with the image of Hagen burned into my retina and his calls of ‘Hoi-ho’ playing over and over in my head for the rest of the night. Hagen is the modern era’s answer to Edmund from King Lear but with no Edgar to counterbalance his evil. He is the black soul which brings The Ring to its apocalyptic conclusion, and perhaps the most perfect incarnation of evil which any stage has yet seen. Never in my life before or since did music scald my ears so intensely. It can be tremendously hard to be drawn into the world of Wagner, but once you are, no music is made to relinquish its hold with more difficulty. If Bach is the angel of music, showing a world untroubled by doubts of the world’s ultimate goodness – with a musical hierarchy in which tonic chords reign over the Western scale like a perfect kingdom; then Wagner is the devil – worming ever deeper questions of doubt into our heads with nothing but the dissonant chaos and diminished chords for company. Bach builds the world for us, Wagner destroys it.

Allegedly, The Ring is four operas. That is simply not true – The Ring is two. One is a mammoth five act monsterpiece which even has a two hour prologue, the other is everything after that. One day, I’d like to see a production that stages Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, and the first two acts of Siegfried as a single opera, and then treats Siegfried’s last act and Gotterdammerung as the same (good luck finding the singers…). Wagner began work on the music to The Ring in 1853, by 1858 he’d written Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, and the first two acts of Siegfried. He then broke off to write Tristan und Isolde – the opera that truly shattered every preconceived notion of harmony that began with Bach; and then wrote the five hour comedy, Die Meistersinger, perhaps as a way of lightening up…

The first 2 2/3rds operas of The Ring are an opera of a demonic genius just beginning to find his footing. The musical material is so rigidly over-controlled that momentum is senselessly dissipated from measure to measure just so Wagner can fit in yet another leitmotif (theme signifying a character or idea) into his score. His first ascent to complete The Ring Cycle is as much theory as music – in which Wagner has a scheme which he adheres to so completely that coma inducing music stands next to some of the most exciting music ever written – and when the exciting bits occur, you’re so grateful for them that they appear all the more exciting in the midst of so much boring bombast. And yet it is also a well-managed journey, a dark comedy that brings us over the course of three days from a primordial beginnings of Das Rheingold to the dark woefulness of Die Walkure’s opening to the light-hearted joyfulness of Siegfried in the forest.

(The Forest Murmurs with which Wagner set down The Ring for a time...)

After Act II of Siegfried, The Ring begins its descent back into darkness – perhaps Wagner was not ready for such a tortured psychic journey. By the time he got around to finishing Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, Wagner was an utterly different composer who’d written Tristan und Isolde, to this day the most harmonically tortured musical journey ever written in which the resolution of an endless series of diminished chords is held just beyond our reach for four hours.

But whereas the diminished chords of Tristan signal the presence of larger-than-life love, lust, and longing, the diminished chords of Gotterdammerung testify to a larger-than-life presence of agonizing doubt, of an infinite spiritual void, of evil reigning triumphant – and the only catharsis remaining possible is through the destruction of the world. Were Satan to speak through music, he would speak through the nebulous key regions of Gotterdammerung.

(The Vengeance Trio)

Unfortunately, Wagner still had to contend with the flawed rigidity of his scheme – so neither the remainder of Siegfried or of Gotterdammerung can be as consistently compelling as either Tristan or Die Meistersinger. But perhaps this is all part of Wagner’s master plan. Whereas with extremely few exceptions, the first six acts of The Ring are all dialogue – a pointless conversation about some stupid Ring and how it’s making everybody batsh-t even though it disappears for four-and-a-half acts; scantly few traditional opera numbers like arias and duets, instead only the talk that exists between them. But beginning in final four acts of the Ring, we feel the air of another planet. Entirely new musical themes are introduced, characters sing real arias and duets, there’s even a chorus (all male though…). Some of the themes may be the same, but the final third of The Ring is a completely different composition.

Or is it? Perhaps the claustrophobic, captive air which we breathe through the first two-thirds of The Ring is deliberate. For all the association of Wagner with bombast, Wagner is bombastic in a completely different way than he’s alleged. Much of Wagner’s music is deafeningly quiet, with nothing but ominous sounds emitting from the orchestra which accompany quiet dialogue that is unspeakably – perhaps deliberately – dull for an hour-long stretch. Whether Wagner intended it this way or not, it creates an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia for which the only release is the violence of Wagner’s louder passages. As The Ring progresses, these releases grow more and more frequent, more and more frenzied, more violent, darker – as though we’re pushed ever further to a kind of ecstatic despair for which destruction is the only release.

(Again, the immolation scene that wraps things up)

(Still more…much more…as this develops through the next few days)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Robert Frost Reads: Birches

a wonderful document from my country's greatest poet...really...

Friday, September 14, 2012

800 Words & Friday Playlist: The Fantasy World of Wagner’s Ring Part 1

(If I told you that this music is about planning a wedding, would you believe me?)

I still don’t get it. No matter how much I vow to stay away from Wagner, no matter how bored I am by him, I keep coming back for more. Wagner wrote 10 major operas, most of which are over four hours long, and less than 25% of the music from which I find a pleasurable experience to listen to. We all have the experience of music, or movies, or books, or whatever else; that you realize is inestimably great, and yet we don’t like it. Many people feel that way about classical music itself. And yet more than any cultural milestone for which I have little sympathy: I find myself unable to tear myself away from Wagner, even as I find the whole spectacle somewhat unbearable. This is music that attracts me and repulses me simultaneously. I once wrote a dialogue between me and Wagner in which I portrayed him as a pimp with feather cap and full-on ghetto speak. It was hardly in good taste, but I enjoyed myself, and I preferred it to a lot of other things I’ve written.

But even as I’m repulsed, I can’t escape the feeling that so many people I know would take to Wagner much better than I ever did. Wagner is the ultimate fantasy literature. Anyone infatuated by Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, or Marvel Comics, or even Disney movies, can take to Wagner like fish to water. He is grandfather of them all. The Brothers Grimm may be the originators of modern fantasy literature, but Wagner takes fantasy literature to an un-toppable zenith. Wagner’s world of fantasy literature mapped on a scale so massive that even Game of Thrones looks as though it’s written under a microscope. In its musical way, there is no world of fantasy so detailed, so intricate and complex, or so inspiring as the world Wagner created. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars may have inspired generations of nerds to dress up, but Wagner’s dress up games inspired whole countries, whole regimes, whole eras. We are a visual culture, not an aural one. So the musical intricacies of Wagner's world have fallen on nearly deaf ears. But were the ears of all the DC comic fans better developed, they would fall on Wagner like a pack of vultures. 

And yet it has all the same problems which all the aforementioned cultural milestones do. Wagner deals in archetype, not characters: health against sickliness, freshness against rot, morality against decadence, good against evil. And yet his greatest paradox of all is that in creating an art which tries to espouse all that is good and true in the world, he created one of the world’s most decadent cultural bodies of work – four-to-five hour operas of unsurpassable demands, volume, complexity, and expense. Over and over again, Wagner’s libretti (texts) espouse the message that the highest honor of all is to die in the service of a cause greater than the self – if love you feel for your deceased boyfriend, or your god, or for the balance of nature, is fervent enough, then you will die in a blaze of ecstasy to be at one with them; free from life’s stifling compromises and sacrifices. For those who take this message seriously (and many people once did), it is a disgusting, demonic rendering of how life ought to be lived.

Wagner wrote his own texts, and they are as amazingly dull as the speech of any dictator. Like nearly all opera texts, they can’t be taken seriously as anything but allegory. Whether the opera is L’Incoronazione di Poppea, or Tamerlano, or The Magic Flute, or Nabucco, or Salome, so many operas are as much a comment on the events of their day as they are representations of myth and literature. If composers of previous centuries set their operas in the present day and critiqued current events, they would be thrown in prison. But because composers set operas in the distant past, they could stage events that closely resembled events of the present day, and trust that the audience was intelligent enough to make the connection.

But Wagner’s operas take allegory to still another level. Like Greek Drama, we’re supposed to view these events at such a distance that we can’t possibly see ourselves in these characters. The characters here are absolutely not human in the way which we are. Wagner lovers always talk about how Wagner is such a masterful psychologist – that’s bollocks. Wagner doesn’t understand psychology, because that would imply an understanding of three-dimensional human beings. What Wagner understands is moods. No matter what the idea he’s trying to represent, he finds the absolutely perfect music for it. So whether it’s the music for a mood of evil, or of love, or of legally binding treaties, he finds music that rings in our ears as the perfect music to capture precisely what he means. Each theme has a motif, just a few notes long with a few harmonies underneath, and it’s perfect. Every time an idea needs to be represented, he simply takes the motif and uses it as he sees fit.
(Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene and the conclusion to the Ring. Turn on the Closed Captioning.)

The Great Moments of the Ring:

Siegfried’s Funeral March (Sir Georg Solti would be amazing in a fight...)

The Ride of the Valkyries (see it in its actual operatic context)

Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla (with subtitles, pretty much the whole plot of the Ring Cycle can be understood in this excerpt…music’s pretty good too)

Das Rheingold Prelude (a full hundred years before Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, we get four minutes of uninterrupted E-Flat Major)

Descent of the Gods into Nibelheim (for sheer awe-inspiring theatrical effects in music, I don’t think Wagner ever topped this musical transition, which ends with the music of roughly a dozen anvils)

Die Walkure Prelude (tying Beethoven’s record for the most visceral thunderstorm in music)

Die Walkure Act 1 Scene 3: (Much is made about how the first act of Die Walkure is one of the glories of Wagner. The truth is that it’s dreadfully dull until Siegmund and Sieglinde are alone, at which point it gets incredibly fucked up when they realize that they’re twin brother and sister, fall in love, elope, and conceive Siegfried, the hero that will redeem the world. The music of this scene, however, is quite beautiful and often incredibly exciting.)

Die Walkure end of Act II (Most of Act II of Die Walkure is a dreadful bore, with the god Wotan arguing over the finer points of how to punish incest with his wife Fricka and daughter Brunhilde. Nevertheless, the end of the act is very exciting…believe me, we deserve it.)

Wotan’s Farewell (Between the Ride of the Valkyries and Wotan’s Farewell, Act III of Die Walkure is unlistenable. If Wagner had made act three a stich of merely those two scenes, it would be a masterpiece.)

Siegfried’s forging song (Siegfried is both the worst and the best of the Ring operas. None of the operas has more spectacularly cinematic scenes with music that makes John Williams sound like John Tesh, and none has duller valleys. Act I is the nadir of the Ring; a dull, dull series of exchanges between an annoying dwarf – who is allegedly an anti-semitic caricature – a bratty teenager, and a homeless dude who’s actually a god in disguise. But the final scene is far better than the rest, in which we finally get some memorable music as Siegfried forges the magical sword that no other person can.)

Siegfried and Fafner: (The hero kills the dragon, a scene that is made utterly cliché by now in every b-movie ever made. But if you want an example of how Wagner inflamed the world, look no further than this scene.)

Siegfried Finale: (The moment when Brunnhilde awakens is, for me, one of the most magical moments in all of opera. Never mind all the dull, annoying things that have happened already. When you see and hear Brunhilde awaken, everything else is forgiven – this isn’t quite the best example…I can’t find a good cut of it. But would that all fairy tales were accompanied by music like this.)

Gotterdammerung Love Duet (And if that weren’t enough, there’s another melting love duet in Gotterdammerung. It is the last time the lovers are in uncomplicated circumstances. Immediately followed by…)

Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (Siegfried crosses the Rhine in search of new adventures…it doesn’t really end well for him, but Wagner gets some epic music out of it.)

More on Wagner next week in our ‘Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks’ (which will probably take ten years to complete…)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

800 Words: I Love Being Wrong

The above statement may strike people who know me as a shock, or perhaps an outright lie. I’ve debated and argued with far too many people over the years to give much evidence of its truth. And in one way, it’s certainly false; I don’t much like being proven wrong by others – few if any people do. But in most ways, the above statement is absolutely true. I’ve learned to love it, I had to. Because over the years I’ve noticed that I eventually think that nine out of every ten things I once believed are wrong – and then the new things I believe are wrong too. People evolve, and whether in matters of politics, culture, people, science, or workaday banalities, you’d better be willing to change your mind at the drop of a coin if you want to stay in touch with reality.

 Some people believe that doubt is a cancer of the mind, ruining all that is good and true in the world and undermining the dogmas they cling to as the only way of making sense of our crazy world. They cling to a set of beliefs and values as the rest of us do a favorite shirt. These people believe that consistency is a virtue – I think it shows an extreme lack of thought. If you don’t reconsider your beliefs, if they don’t evolve from year to year, if you’re the exact same person you were five years ago, you’re not only boring, you’re probably a dangerous person who makes the world a worse place to live for those of us trying to live in the real world.

It takes an enormous amount of repression to stay consistent in the face of a world that’s always turning. As the paradoxical argument goes (best summed up in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille), you can’t change nature, but nature is change. It’s the paradox at the heart of human nature – we all try to change ourselves and others, only to find that we are all precisely the same people we were before the change. And yet, at the very same time, we are completely different people for having undergone such strenuous efforts to change. From year to year, month to month, day to day, hour to hour, etc., we are completely different people than we were before, and yet the more we try to control the difference, the more those differences run away from us. Life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans, …said some guy with sunglasses (more or less),

It was an enormously educational experience to re-read that Hopkins paper I posted yesterday. I probably hadn’t looked at it in four years. Looking at it now, aside from some glaringly obvious typos, I suddenly realize that I no longer quite believe some of the things I wrote. I’m not sure I believed some of them then.

I was a freshly new poli-sci grad student with visitor status, hoping against hope that I could either get the kind of professorial recommendation that could get me into a second-rate PhD program or at least a master’s program in international relations. As a graduate from a second-rate music school, there was no way I could have ever gotten into Hopkins on my own merits. But I was at the height of my political passions – having spent more time thinking about politics at American University than I ever did about music. For people whose passion is politics, there is not a single school in America that provides a better environment – AU lived and breathed politics the way state schools breathed sports. In the years after 9/11, it was absolutely impossible not to be caught in the sweep of people’s passions – and passionate discussions were happening everywhere you turned, from drunken debates at parties on the grandest philosophical first principles to cafeteria talk on the extreme minutia of polling numbers which people discussed the way University of Maryland sports nerds discuss shooting percentages. It was a grand, grand time.

After four years at AU, a year in Israel, and far too many Christopher Hitchens articles resounding in my head, I managed to convince Hopkins to take me as a poli-sci student on visitor status – determined to make up for my lack of education by sheer dint of effort and a surfeit of classroom bluster. For the first two months, I was probably an embarrassment – constantly condemning realism in American foreign policy while not realizing that my main professor was a realist in the Brent Scowcroft mode (so that’s why that other kid was suppressing giggles…). I hardly understood or made my way through the articles I was assigned, and I all too quickly realized I had neither the talent nor the desire for typical academic work – reading and writing obscure, jargon-filled, theoretical articles in political journals which told you absolutely nothing about the history or the practice of international affairs and everything about how the English language can be mauled. After a few weeks, I just decided to fake my way through the class discussions, and suddenly the professor found my contributions to class discussion much more valuable.

But that year at Hopkins did provide me with one crucial political insight. After five years of listening to Republicans from my uncle to college drinking buddies yammer in my ear about the importance of deposing dictators in the Middle East, I saw the entire world from a nearly neoconservative point of view – or at least a Tony Blairite liberal hawk one (and I was on the hawkish end of liberal hawk). I was always an economic and social liberal, and rarely ever wavered on those points. But on foreign policy, I’d become nearly as hawkish as people came.  To me, there was little if any difference between people who subscribed to and the Henry Kissinger realists; both of them were obstacles to liberal democracy who subscribed to the racist notion that Arabs are not ready for it and should not be encouraged to embrace it by all means at our disposal.

But there was one circle in this circular logic I could not square. Why had the Palestinians elected Hamas in their first reasonably free legislative election? Columnists and friends on the left would have me believe that they’d done it because the radical Islamic party Hamas was the only competent party in Palestine – a fact whose truth was demonstrated by the secularist Fatah party producing two competing party lists and two more secessionist party lists. But it still troubled me greatly that faced with the prospect of democracy and freedom, a plurality of Palestinians would willingly choose to elect a party whose entire ethos is grounded in an unmoderated political Islam which would almost guarantee the end of any prospect for democracy to burgeon.

My professors were almost all realists; real realists, who were nearly as hard-bitten, almost authoritarian, in their views as their students were leftist. They’d grown up in the Cold War era, and saw it as a given that alliances with dictatorships were absolutely necessary to keep the balance of power. The moment I was moved to an argument like theirs was the moment I started tabulating the political murders committed by various dictators – 11-21 million under Hitler, 20-62 million under Stalin, 40-over 100 million under Mao, and a similarly large proportion of population under less powerful dictators like Pol Pot, Saddam, Suharto, Seko, and Idi Amin. If you actually care about the world, a mere list of these death tolls is enough to make you wretch – and that doesn’t even begin to account for how these people were killed, or how many were imprisoned, displaced, maimed, driven insane, and raped. It’s very hard to get worked up over far away dictatorships that kill mere thousands of people, or even authoritarians in your own country, when you realize that whole civilizations can be wiped out in the span of a few years. Compared to the aforementioned murderers, Pinochet and Mubarak were downright principled and Rick Santorum is St. Rick of the Gay Pride. As I think any rational person can see, I was forced to conclude that yes, some dictators are worse, much worse, than others. The United States is blamed for making these sorts of ‘lesser evil’ decisions to assist a dictator in coming to power so that a worse one may not, and sometimes deservedly so. Certainly in the cases of Suharto in Indonesia and Seko in the Congo, virtually any communist government would have been preferable to the apocalyptic bloodbaths which followed.

The problem with neoconservatism is not that neoconservatives don’t take the threat of totalitarianism too seriously, it’s that they don’t take it seriously enough. To policy-makers in the Bush administration, any country whose government is possessed of an over-arching ideology with a predisposition to violence (that isn’t neoconservatism) is totalitarian ipso-facto. It helped their case that Saddam was a truly totalitarian dictator (though less than he once was), but to think that a country could embrace democracy without first having a reliable rule of law, a functional and uncorrupted civil service, and economic security, is beyond ludicrous – it’s downright dangerous. It left (and still leaves) open an invitation for a leader even more bloody-minded than Saddam to impose his rule.  

But looking at that paper now, I see I went too far in the other direction. The realist jargon term ‘national interest’ is sprayed all around that piece – never mind that no two realists seem to agree on what’s in the ‘national interest.’ I don’t know if I meant that it doesn’t matter whether self-interest is an amoral question or if the morality of doing something in the ‘national interest’ is implied, but either way, it does not sit well with me now. Doing the right thing is what’s important, far more important than any national interest, and I’m sure I believed that then as well as now. Clearly, I was either trying to impress my professor or misstating my case.  

I still think Jimmy Carter was a terrible president whose abandonment of the Sha had dire consequences that were utterly predictable*. I still think Pinochet, bloody as he was, was far from the worst option (try to imagine how easily a Latin-American civil war could have spread around the world… it’s not hard…), but there’s one sentence that particularly jars me:

In the case of 1970’s Chile, we find an example in which Kirkpatrick is proven correct in her assertion that support for right-wing autocracy is sometimes very necessary due to very real threats of communist infiltration.

I could point to a number of instances like this in the paper, but this was the first sentence I wrote in the “Chile from Allende to Pinochet” section. Well…yes, I suppose that in the beginning it was necessary to support Pinochet’s coup. But the brutality was also completely preventable, and neither Nixon nor Ford did much to prevent it – not even when an exiled Chilean Statesman was assassinated in Washington DC.

But at the same time, Communist infiltration is a very dire thing  – even if it’s danger was co-opted by all sorts of right-wing demagogues for their own purposes. What I deliberately left out of this paper is that, on the whole, Communist dictatorships were at very least a little bloodier, more repressive, more disgusting regimes to live under than non-Communist ones, just not nearly to the extent which Jeane Kirkpatrick claimed. To give just the most obvious example, many people on the left like to argue that Chiang Kai-Shek was just as bloody a dictator as Mao. To be sure, Chiang was a foul, foul murderer; his forces killed approximately 4 million Chinese people, but they did so in wartime. Upon winning the Chinese Civil War, Mao Tse-Tun’s reign saw the political murder of at least 40 million people (perhaps three times as many) – and that was during peace time.

The world is what it is, and whether the subject is politics, philosophy, culture, the people around us, or everyday chores, it’s up to us to understand the world if we can. It’s entirely possible that my view of the world will change yet again as time goes on. As far as politics goes, I was a leftist in high school, a liberal hawk in college, a liberal realist in graduate school, and (hopefully) a liberal in adulthood. I’m pretty sure I thought of myself as a liberal the whole time, but my beliefs were always changing: I evolved, perhaps for better fitness, perhaps for worse. But either way, I’ve tried to go from year to year with a better understanding of things than I had before.

*Let us pray that Obama’s abandonment of Mubarak doesn’t have the same consequences, I believe Obama did the right thing, but the jury is very much still out. Nevertheless, it should occur to us all that if an Ayatollah-like figure is about to take over Egypt, he’d have appeared by now.