Logic And Emotion: Notes On Bach

by Anitra Pavlico

Springtime always reminds me of Johann Sebastian Bach. When I was young, my father coaxed me to go to a concert celebrating Bach’s 300th birthday. I used to think it was arcane knowledge, Bach’s date of birth, but Google recently featured it on their homepage–he would have been 334 on March 21. He belongs to everyone, even if it feels as if he is communicating to you personally. His music speaks of emotion, vitality, and renewal, which makes it fitting that his birth rings in the spring. Scholars and performers have of course written much about Bach, so I mainly would like to write about my own experiences and to comment on his Well-Tempered Clavier, two volumes of preludes and fugues in each of the keys of the scale, meant at least in part for students learning keyboard. It is much more than exercises, though; as the critic Harold Schonberg wrote, “if music does have a Bible, it is Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.”

There is a terrific video on YouTube of András Schiff playing Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier live at The Proms in 2017. It is as good an accompaniment to this article as any. Even Schiff’s facial expressions tell a story about the emotion inherent in this music. Bach has sometimes been played in a dry, clinical, “sewing machine” style, as Schonberg described in his 1972 column for the New York Times to mark the Well-Tempered Clavier’s 250th anniversary. Schonberg notes, however, that Bach would not have played it that way himself: “His pupils testified that he was always interested in the emotional content of a piece — the Affekt.

The conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven that “Bach’s keyboard works maintain a tension — born of restraint and obedience to self-set conventions — between form (which we might describe variously as cool, severe, unbending, narrow or complex) and content (passionate or intense) more palpably and obviously than does his texted music.” The Well-Tempered Clavier pieces reflect this tension, as beneath the orderly facade lies deep emotion. The first prelude of Book I, in C major, is celestial in its stillness and simplicity. At the same time, it contains near-constant striving: delicious, arpeggiated chords are ever-moving to the end goal of C major where they began. This is one to listen to when you want to believe that life is pure, simple, and good, but you suspect danger lurks under the surface. It is followed by the C minor prelude, in contrast, which is dangerous throughout. After that journey, the accompanying C minor fugue’s eventual arrival at C major is cathartic. Read more »

The Posh & The Brave

by Robert Fay

Being American, as well as a Gen X-er who grew up on the lyrics of the Sex Pistols, “God save the queen…she’s not a human being,” I never quite understand the U.K.’s loyalty to the British Royal family. Up through the Edwardian era, aristocratic veneration made sense in many ways, but the horror and folly of World War I should have thoroughly wrung that ancient habit from the English soul. But a young Queen Elizabeth took the reins in 1952, and proved an admirable monarch, and then Princess Diana arrived two over decades later adding a much-needed bit of Hollywood glamour to the House of Windsor. But I still didn’t pay the Royals any mind until I discovered a video of Prince Harry in a firefight with Taliban gunmen in Afghanistan.

Now this was interesting, I thought. Here was one of the world’s most privileged, poshest individuals and he was in Helmand Province, arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth in 2008.

I assumed it had been some kind of publicity event, until I did some research and found out Prince Harry had actually attended Royal Military College Sandhurst, the officer candidate school for British Army officers, that is six-months long, and has a solid reputation for toughness and professionalism. Prince Harry went on to serve as a Forward Air Controller in Afghanistan in 2008 and then as an Apache fighter pilot, also seeing action in Afghanistan in 2012. He was the real deal. Read more »

Monday Poem

Tool Series

—Constructive poems for carpenters and other builders
.
ADZE

I’ve never been a mathematician
physicist or statistician
but, as a carpenter who aspires
to be a word magician
I can fill you in on certain facz
such as the irrational condition
in which, at least from Mesolithic times,
the framer’s friend, the adze, subtracz
.

HAMMER

Hammer

A hammer’s not a thing of glamor
until you feel its heft

but when you grip an Estwing’s shank
and swing it up to bring it down
to drive a nail into a plank
you recognize its simple grace:
its elegant utility as whammer

And if your nail’s a driven flaw
you always have its graceful claw
to slip around its head and yank
—a perfect brutal adjunct
to your curse and stammer
.

SPIRIT LEVEL

A spirit level’s used to set things straight
with the plane of the horizon as in a beam
or plumb as with a stud to make sure
structure’s right by spirit

you breathe deep and easy and hold the level
so the spirit bubble floats in the small arc of a glass flask
dead center which if placed upon a joist would say,
this floor is level
…………………..
being on the level

good way to be
.

Jim Culleny
3/31/19

Why You Shouldn’t Curse

by Akim Reinhardt

You shouldn’t curse. People will take you less seriously. Cursing also reveals a certain laziness on your part, suggesting that you can’t be bothered to come up with more descriptive language. In the end, when you curse, you short change both yourself and your audience. Instead, take the time to use the language more fully, more carefully, and more artfully. In so doing, your message will be clearer, more forceful, and better received.

April Fools!

Seriously, are you fuckin’ kidding me? Do you have any idea just how fucked up the world is? I’m sorry, but polite language simply will not do.

The president of the United States is a foul mouthed racist and serial sexual molester. Donald Trump has referred to neo-Nazis as “nice people,” and repeatedly called for a group of incontrovertibly innocent black teenagers (now grown men) to be executed for supposedly raping a white woman. In other words, he’s a failed lyncher. He also brags about committing sexual battery, specifically grabbing women’s “pussies,” and I think you’d be pretty naive to insist he’s never actually raped anyone. By some estimates, 1/5 of all American women have been raped; honestly, what are the odds that this nasty, little motherfucker has never been one of the millions of perpetrators during his six decades of sexual activity? Read more »

Translating Descartes

by Leanne Ogasawara

1. The philosopher and the translator

It was probably the most interesting translation job I ever had. Hired directly by the philosopher himself, my task was to translate into English a series of talks and papers he would be delivering in the US and Europe in the coming year. Philosophy being what I studied as an undergraduate, I had high hopes for the job. But my Japanese philosopher quickly became frustrated with me.

Leanne-san, is it possible for you to forget Descartes while you translate my papers? He wrote superciliously in a style of Japanese designed to be condescending beyond belief.

Well, this took me by surprise! Was it possible that I was guilty of an unconscious Cartesianism? Surely, he must be joking; for had I not studied at the feet of the great Heidegger scholar, Hubert Dreyfus, who had made it his mission to demolish Descartes in front of our very eyes –before turning to Heidegger? In all my philosophy classes, in fact, Descartes (always referred to as “the father of modern philosophy”) came up again and again–mainly in the form of other philosophers’ reactions to some aspect of his work.

So much so, that sometimes I think my understanding of Descartes is itself a rejection of Descartes.

And so, I informed my philosopher that not only had I forgotten Descartes long ago, but that I had no plans to ever remember him again.

He was not convinced and pressed his point. Read more »

When I was Twelve, I liked to Steal

by Richard Passov

Stealing gave me currency with the older kids who hung in front of the apartments on weekend nights. Anything I got from our local supermarket was of value, especially cough syrup with codeine and flasks of rum or vodka.

One of the older boys, who was soon to die in a train accident, showed me how to tie the end of a sleeve on my windbreaker. When I flipped the jacket over my shoulder the tied sleeve rested unnoticed against my back. He also showed me which bottles of cough syrup to slip into the sleeve.

One night, my sleeve full of cough syrup, I exited the store near closing time. Just outside two men stood in front of me.

 A third man approached. “We’ve been watching you,” he said. I knew the mirrors high up at the back of the store were windows. “We’re just going to call your parents.”

He wore a long sleeve white shirt and dark, ill fitted slacks held up by a belt. A pack of cigarettes pressed against his front pocket. I looked only as far as the two red stripes visible under thin cloth: Taryetons, which I remembered my father smoking.

“I’m the store manager. We’re just gonna take you upstairs and call your parents.”

We backtracked through the store, through vinyl slats that hung next to the cold cabinets, into a storage space then up a stairway that led to a long hallway. We walked past the fake mirrors to an office. The manager took the seat behind a desk. The other two stood away from me but stayed in the room. Read more »

On the Road: A Russian Town in the Norwegian Arctic

by Bill Murray

Two dozen strangers meet by the fjord at the edge of town. We are utterly out of our element, tourists through and through. Today we shall pound across the tundra on snowmobiles, a means of conveyance most of us have never been aboard.

We’re all curious about our tour company-issued Arctic wear. We paw through different sizes and splay ourselves out across the room pulling on one-piece snowmobile suits.

The outfitters can’t be responsible for your hypothermia, so you strap yourself into their suit, boots, helmet, goggles and today, double balaclavas because it is cold cold, the guide named Hans Peter says. One man opts out of the trip rather than surrender his medical shoes for mandatory fur boots.

The suits work. They keep you if not warm, not cold either. The danger is the contact points between goggles and balaclava because if you expose skin there while moving at 35 or 50 kilometers per hour, wind chill will cause frostbite in short order.

All suited up, everybody looks like everybody else. Anonymity serves as metaphor for the dark season here, where the sun set on October 25th and only rose again (for an hour) on February 15th.

This is Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway, eight hundred miles from the North Pole. Our destination, across the island, is a Russian settlement called Barentsburg.

They put 22 of us through a precious few novice moves, how to drive a snowmobile. Just a five-minute lesson because there really isn’t much to learn. Push this to start the engine, pull that to go, wiggle your body with the curves. And supervision is close at hand. Read more »

“The Writer’s Heart”: A Conversation between Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima

Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima are two of the authors in Strange Attractors, an anthology that’s just come out with University of Massachusetts Press, edited by Edie Meidav and Emmalie Dropkin. The thirty-five pieces in the collection explore unsettling experiences of magnetism and unanticipated encounter irresistible enough to change or derail the course of a life. In chaos theory, “strange attractor” is the term given to the fractal variety of attractor that arises out of a dynamic system; its defining unpredictability makes this mathematical concept an apt metaphor for the twists of fate that send us reeling, but can sometimes feel oddly inevitable in hindsight. In her piece for the anthology, “Children and All That Jazz,” Liesl Schillinger weaves the music and heartache of Joan Baez into the lives and longings of a family in the American Midwest in the 1970s; in Andrea Scrima’s excerpt “all about love, nearly,” the narrator explores the dimensions of a world transfigured, and then dissembled, by passion.

A.S.: Liesl, I love the part in your story where a pack of kids is playing “Murder in the Dark” and the young narrator’s crush, who plays the part of the killer, draws near her in the dark yard: “I didn’t try to back away, I thought maybe he was going to kiss me, but then he killed me which was so predictable.”

L.S.: It’s funny, as a child, my belief in the importance of love—fed by the nineteenth-century novels I devoured—from Louisa May Alcott to Dickens and Austen and Stendhal—was unshakeable. I was always waiting for the coup de foudre. But that was paired with an instinctive pessimism, or maybe resignation. My mother gave me a reading list, I was expected to read a book a week, and didn’t consider not doing that. But I also read the twentieth-century novels on my parents’ bedroom shelves. John Irving, Shirley Hazzard, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene did a lot to temper my romantic idealism. Or maybe to undermine it. I hoped for love to work out, but didn’t expect it to; and was somehow always relieved, I think (eventually), when one of my castles in the air collapsed, and I was back on solid ground.

A.S.: I guess my piece in the anthology covers the other, unhealthier side of things: when love makes you lose your footing and even your hold on reality: “my crazy, exalted, euphoric collusion in my own demise.”

L.S.: There’s a conversation between (Shakespeare’s) Antony and Cleopatra that I’ve never forgotten, though this is a paraphrase—Cleopatra says something to the effect of: “I will not have love as my master.” Antony responds, “Then you will not have love.” I’ve had a long and occasionally turbulent romantic history, and Antony and Cleopatra’s exchange reflects my experience. Read more »

The Game of Skin

by Maniza Naqvi

Now in this damp, stiff swollen fingers, mine, once slender, of gossamer touch, which pierced skin with steel, silk, molded spheres, to be kicked by heroes, turned warriors, turned champions, turned angels in distant lands, on green fields and roaring theaters of fierce contest of fury and cheer. Yet I am not there, at the game, but I am present, in every single game. They don’t know do they, that without me, the game would not be, that without me, they, howling with joy, howling in expectant yowls and cheers awash in victorious and defeated tears, and beer, this ritualistic collective catharsis, all of this, without me, would not happen, would not be. This story. Where am I in it? What is history but unspeakable violence, erasure and invisibility, spat and polished into and put a sheen upon, to create a mirror for those who look. Yes, a mirror, after all that effort to put a spin on it, we can’t get away can we from ourselves? Won’t we all in trying to cross drown in our collective grief? It is I, bobbing in steel on these shores, not allowed in, who’s fingers bloodied by a thousand pierces, who’s eyes blinded by constant attention who brings them this. These intricate delicate, fine, exquisite fingers, this attentive keen sight, this laboring, I bring them this, the very thing they claim as their soul a distilled meaning and morphing to something sublime. I who they bar from entering. I, who has been left un-reading, unread, now thirsty, hungry, suffocating. I who makes all of this. I who am their constant dread. Left for dead. But I am here, here, off shore, there in that field, in that theater, amidst the squeals of joy. No, the game does not happen without me. And now, hidden here, bobbing, stealing away in steel, floating, lurching on waves upon waves, broken away from that bondage of needles and stretching skin for a perfect sphere for kicking, I am here. A prisoner of contained fates. The Adriatic laps outside: the smell of salt, octopus, fir, citrus and jasmine presents itself in the way of salvation in the way of pain, unforgettable almost impossible to conjure in language, in memory, how to give words to the scent of lavender and black pine and Crni bor. Or those left behind. Equally uncontained perfumed keys unlocking the mind. No, the game doesn’t happen without the likes of me. But I am suffocating now, I am contained here in a coffin of steel, upon the sea, unwanted, unwelcomed, unseen, listening to the cheering roar of a crowd ecstatic as some adored gladiator whips it into net—that sphere of skin I have sewn. The game, I cannot enter, does not happen without me.

Thomas Naylor’s Paths Peace in a world of small states

by Bill Benzon

A small-state world would not only solve the problems of social brutality and war; it would solve the problems of oppression and tyranny. It would solve all problems arising from power.  – Leopold Kohr, Breakdown of Nations

This insight was the late Thomas Naylor’s lodestone; it informed and animated everything he did. Primarily an economist – who taught at Duke University, University of Wisconsin, Middlebury College, and the University of Vermont ­– he had also been a businessman, running a small software firm, and he advised corporations and governments in over thirty countries, an activity that lead him to predict the political upheavals of the Soviet Union. He moved to Vermont in 1990 in search of human-scale community, which he found, and a decade later founded the Second Vermont Republic, which advocated Vermont secession from the USA to become an independent state, which it had been from 1777 to 1791. Time magazine named the Second Vermont Republic as one of the “Top 10 Aspiring Nations” in the world as recently as 2011.

In Thomas Naylor’s Paths to Peace: Small is Necessary (Wheatmark, 2019) I have collected nine essays and two manifestos Naylor published in the last decade of his life – he died in 2012 – and a long interview in which he placed his ideas and activism in the context of his life. A fond eulogy by Kirkpatrick Sale and a forward and afterward by Charlie Keil place Naylor’s life and work in a larger context. Here is Keil’s forward.

Forward: Naylor’s Arguments in a Broader Context

by Charlie Keil

First, some frameworks, contexts for understanding the importance of Thomas Naylor’s contributions to the Great Transition and a paradigm shift in consciousness: 1) Cosmic; 2) Philosophic; 3) Green or Natural; 4) Self-determination of peoples and persons, the liberation of nations/peoples/cultures and persons/individuals, especially women and children, currently trapped in obsolete state formations. Read more »

Tales From An Audiophilic Childhood

by Michael Liss

How do you raise kids in an increasingly harsh and atonal world?  

We all have our templates for seeking harmony. Mine were my own parents. They were not performing artists or even musicians; neither played an instrument (I think the kazoo doesn’t qualify), and neither could sing. But, as listeners, they were virtuosos. Classical, of course, but also big band and swing, boogie-woogie and jazz, klezmer, folk and protest songs. My father even harbored a secret passion for some pretty hardcore mountain music—the real thing, serious pickin’ and fiddlin’ without the Nashville gloss. My sister and I think he gave this up, along with drinking and smoking, when he met my mother.

Then, there was opera. I’ve written before about being tied to a chair in the Orchestra section of the old Met when my legs were still too short to make it all the way to the floor. It was all true: I saw Tosca jump off the parapet, and Madame Butterfly do herself in, and Mimi tragically pass, and Violetta tragically pass, and Radames and Aïda jointly and severally tragically pass, and Baron Scarpia and Don Giovanni not-so-tragically pass. All that passing was inescapable; to quote Bugs Bunny in the towering “What’s Opera Doc?” (as even he passed, a victim of Elmer’s spear and magic helmet), “What did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?” 

In retrospect, I should have been honored that my parents had such confidence in my emotional stability that they felt assured I could cope with all that passing. In the moment, however, I don’t think it ever entirely registered with me, especially since all the adults would then cheer wildly. Brava, she’s dead? Read more »