Zombies, Part 2: the Philosophical Undead

November 14, 2010 at 1:26 am (By Theo Boehm)

As a former musician, I’ve played in and heard quite a few concerts that could only be described as nights of the living dead. Most musical people have had this happen. I’ve been searching for something more on undead in music ever since, but it looks like the current fascination with Zombies has taken other turns.

But I still don’t have an answer to the social question of just what is it with Zombies lately?  And I don’t mean the LA Philharmonic. I’m wondering why all the pop culture Zombies, not to mention their appearance in otherwise serious philosophy and psychology?

Philosophical Zombies?

Not this guy, exactly. But from reports of his female students, close enough.

No, as I mentioned in the last post, I had my curiosity piqued the other day when I came across a survey of philosophers and students of philosophy on attitudes toward some of the basic, perennial questions. This was done by philpapers, a site for “online research in philosophy,” as it’s titled. The homepage of the survey is here.

In any event, the following question appeared at the end of the survey:

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

  • Accept or lean toward: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 331 / 931 (35.5%)
  • Other 234 / 931 (25.1%)
  • Accept or lean toward: metaphysically possible 217 / 931 (23.3%)
  • Accept or lean toward: inconceivable 149 / 931 (16%)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

This is a question in a respectable academic survey?

It seems so.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has the following:

Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness. This disconcerting fantasy helps to make the problem of phenomenal consciousness vivid, especially as a problem for physicalism.

Few people think zombies actually exist. But many hold they are at least conceivable, and some that they are ‘logically’ or ‘metaphysically’ possible. It is argued that if zombies are so much as a bare possibility, then physicalism is false and some kind of dualism must be accepted. For many philosophers that is the chief importance of the zombie idea. But the idea is also of interest for its presuppositions about the nature of consciousness and how the physical and the phenomenal are related. Use of the zombie idea against physicalism also raises more general questions about relations between imaginability, conceivability, and possibility. Finally, zombies raise epistemological difficulties: they reinstate the ‘other minds’ problem.

Wow. I had no idea. It looks like philosophy of the mind has made something of a comeback, modern philosophers having realized that devising logical ways to stop the asking of hard questions, or proving in a really deep way that 1+1=2 are at a dead end, so to speak. Neither Ludwig Wittgenstein nor Lord Russell have been seen wandering in from the graveyard lately, but at least Wittgenstein had a bit of practice looking the part before he actually took up residence there.

Sartre, despite his philosophical and literary protestations, was, from all reports, a fairly good candidate for undead status himself.  He seems to have been more concerned with the effects than the cause of consciousness and/or mind.  And I’m not going to say anything about his personal life, which, if I did, would be the biggest clue about his having fooled everybody into thinking he was alive.   Further, as a matter of taste, I much prefer Zombies to rocks if we have to pick models for nobody being home.

The question remains, however, not when or if philosophers became Zombies, but when did Zombies become philosophical? It seems their earliest mention in the literature was in Robert Kirk’s “Zombies vs. Materialists” in Mind in 1974. It figures. It was the 70’s. After that, philosophers began to use the example of Zombies in the 90’s, and there have been dozens of papers since, not to mention things like a Symposium on “Conversations with zombies” in 1995.

One of the leading lights of current philosophical Zombiedom is David Chalmers, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University. He’s a charming guy and a terrific writer. He has written the best general introduction to philosophical Zombies on the web. He also provides plenty of links, although many are getting tattered lately. One of the best is this amusing summary of Zombie-based papers back in the ’90’s.

I could go on, quoting and rehearsing various positions taken and conclusions reached, but I think the best introduction to philosophical Zombies is the following cartoon, which pretty much lays it out, and saves me the trouble of writing any more about modern philosophers, not to mention dusty old types such as Descartes and the Buddha, who were known to have a few things to say about this, tedious as they can be when read online.

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Zombies, Part 1

November 13, 2010 at 8:42 pm (By Theo Boehm)

The reference to Zombies in a serious academic survey I noted in this recent post has led me to do more research.  It seems Zombies are really trendy right now, and they are figuring in everything from pop culture to epistemology.

I’m preparing a longer post on the subject, but first, I thought some of you would like this clip from “The Ghost Breakers,” a 1940 comedy starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. It’s interesting that Bob Hope was ahead of his time with the ghostbusting concept, as well as condensing hours and hours of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, et al., into 25 seconds.

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Starry Night

November 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm (By Theo Boehm)

I was poking around the web tonight and came across this van Gogh “starry night” painting on Astronomy Picture of the Day. Here is the full page devoted to this painting on the site.  Neither my wife nor I knew this painting, and she’s the one with a degree (among others) in Art History. Everyone is familiar with van Gogh’s other, more famous Starry Night. But his view of gaslit Arles reflected on the Rhône under a starlit sky is breathtaking.

When I first saw it, I tried to resist falling into an art trance. Remaining objective is impossible.  Every brush stroke is inevitable, perfect and transcendent. The best van Gogh always has me choking back tears, and I don’t quite know why, except that his soul seems to be bared in every daub on the canvas. Van Gogh pulls at my heart like no other artist, and I suppose I had to say something about it, if for no other reason than to break the ice after too long away from my own neglected blog.

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Just In: Deontology, Consequentialism, and Virtue Ethics in Dead Heat

November 9, 2010 at 1:09 pm (By Theo Boehm)

Yes, this new poll of philosophers reveals a surprising diversity of opinion, although skewed in directions you might imagine. The survey was done by philpapers, and is described on the home page of the project this way:

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

It’s nice to see a number of topics included that we often kick around in our own, strictly amateur way. From what I gather, realpc is outnumbered but not alone in her opinions among philosophers, while the rest of us could learn a thing or two about epistemology and ontology (not to mention zombies) from a quick glance at the survey.

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The World Turned Upside Down

July 17, 2010 at 2:17 am (By Theo Boehm) (, , , )

Global-squalor campaigners seem to have have scored another victory in Rochdale in the UK.  (The town was made famous last year when pensioner and longtime resident Gillian Duffy voiced her concern over immigration to then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and was dismissed by Brown as a “bigoted woman.”)

In the name of un-Duffy-like cultural sensitivity, managers at the local shopping centre decided to install several squat toilets, otherwise known as a Turkish toilet or Nile Pan.  These have been the stuff of nightmares to generations of Anglo-Saxon tourists at French and Italian train stations, not to mention many other plumbing-challenged spots around the globe.

The Mail story quotes Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley, as saying, “We in Britain are rightly proud of our toilets, and the onus is on people who come to this country to appreciate them for what they are….It’s absolutely ludicrous – Thomas Crapper would be turning in his grave!”

The article also mentions Mike Bone, of the British Toilet Association, who warned the washing facilities associated with squat toilets could pose a hygiene hazard. “We really don’t see a need for them,” he said.

Of course, we in the US have been reminded now for 40 years that we really shouldn’t see a need for ordinary flush toilets, either. It’s said that flush toilets are environmentally unsustainable, mostly because they waste water.  The British, green as they may be, seem to have fewer complaints of this.  Water falling from the sky on a daily basis has rendered them less anxious over its availability than we in our more parched climes.  As Dr. Johnson said, an Englishman “has more frequent need to solicit rather than exclude the sun.”  But we know too well an over-familiar acquaintance with that celestial body has its costs.

The damp British climate gave rise to the flush toilet—the earliest may go back to Elizabethan times—and the classic British loo, formerly viewed in many parts of the world as so many phenomena.  But flush toilets are now seen by environmentalists as wasteful and irresponsible. The more historically-minded may regard them as expressions of British plumbing imperialism, suited only to their rain-soaked home islands.

That said, I had a lesson in how attached the British are to their well-functioning toilets last time I was in Paris.  Coming out of the toilets near Sainte-Chapelle, one elderly English lady turned to another and said, “Those worked quite well, didn’t they?” The other replied, “Yes, one appreciates a Good Flush!”

I could barely contain myself, but realised later that I had a lesson in cultural sensitivity at least as great as that learnt by the managers of the Rochdale Shopping Centre. They ought to have known, given our own experiences here in the US with low-flow and other environmentally correct but miserable toilets, that a people inured to a Good Flush do not willingly give it up.

ADDED: There’ll always be an England: Thos. Crapper & Co., Ltd. are trading again!

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The Last Instrument fit for a Gentleman to Play

July 10, 2010 at 5:53 pm (By Theo Boehm) (, , )

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening.)

It’s the easiest thing in the world to “blog” by pointing to a YouTube video. Lame as it may from the standpoint of originality, I can’t help putting up something recent by Robert Barto, one of the great lute players of this, or I suspect, any other time.

The lute is another of those musical spectres who have found a way to haunt us and maybe tell a few ghost stories, but I hope not those that knock under tables or slam doors at midnight. This particular piece is an Entrée from a Suite in A major by S.L. Weiss, lutenist at the Dresden Hofkapelle, who was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach, and who was a friend of Bach and his family, and a sometimes friendly competitor as well. Bach transcribed another movement of this Weiss piece for harpsichord, which he used in his violin sonata, BWV 1025.  I’ve blogged about Weiss and Bach previously here.

Here’s Weiss himself, who manages to look a bit like Barto, but with a wig.  I don’t know whose hair is worse:

Having considered Emerson a bit in my previous post, I’m working on another about Time, somewhat from the perspective of Emerson’s Vedantic philosophy, and which features Dresden, not so much as a symbol, but something deeply embedded in me. So, it seems nice to have a little quiet music from Baroque Dresden, before I treat you to firebombed Dresden.

And much as I admire Amanda Palmer, who grew up in the next town and frequently makes me wish I was young, none of this has anything at all to do with the Dresden Dolls.

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Essay After a Sonata

July 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm (By Theo Boehm) (, , , , , , )

I‘ve been listening to and thinking about the music of Charles Ives (1878-1954), one of the most original composers of this or any other country.

His father had been a bandmaster in the Civil War and later Danbury, Connecticut, and he gave young Ives an odd but thorough musical education. Ives took a degree in Music from Yale in 1898, where he was captain of the baseball team,  and where, the story goes, he was said to have muttered, “Goddam Brahms…Goddam Brahms…” under his breath as a kind of mantra during warm-ups.

Having thus studied the best European masters and their weak American imitators, he determined never to compromise his own startling, American, and original vision of music. He saw that making a living in music in the Gilded Age would entail nothing but compromise.  So, he went into business and became the co-founder of Ives & Co., later Ives & Myrick, a successful New York insurance agency.  He was an original thinker in business as well as music, and in fact pioneered the entire modern concept of estate planning.  Composers do not commonly write books titled, Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax, but Ives did in 1918.

Ives, while becoming wealthy in business, wrote an astonishing amount of music in such spare time as he created for himself. His music is beyond unusual for its day or any other, and, in fact, to say it was “ahead of its time” is the worst limp-wristed cant. Stravinsky put it best, I believe, in 1966:

C: Have you heard Ives’ Fourth Symphony yet, Mr. Stravinsky, and if so, have you any comments to register concerning it?

I.S.: I have found it to be rather less of a ‘gas’ than opinion led me to expect. Ives was not primarily a symphonist; the Three Places in New England are more of an entity than any one of the symphonies (besides which they contain much better music than the third and more consistently good music than the fourth). But the second movement of the fourth is an astonishing achievement. The inclusiveness, which is at the root of Ives’ genius (‘all things in their variety,’ as he quoted Emerson) reaches saturation point in these seemingly free-for-all pages; ‘seemingly’ because while this or that tune may suddenly burst out for no other apparent reason than joie de vivre, it is inextricable in the skein of the composition. But I will say no more. I know too little of this fascinating composer who was exploring the 1960s during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Polytonality; atonality; tone clusters; perspectivistic effects; chance; statistical composition; permutation; add-a-part, practical-joke, and improvisatory music: these were Ives’ discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table. But to me personally these innovatory achievements are of less moment (artistic inventions not being patented, in any case) than my discovery in him, only very recently, of a new awareness of America.

–Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, p. 66.

The original book is online here.

The second movement of another Ives symphony, the unnumbered “New England Holidays,” has always been close to my heart.  It paints a picture of Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) in a New England village when Ives was a boy, about 20 years before the turn of the last century. It’s filled, like most of Ives’ music, with quotes and snippets of popular songs, hymns, and Civil War tunes, which is what Stravinsky meant by “inclusiveness,” in reference to the second movement of the 4th Symphony.  Much of Ives’ commonplace music is unfamiliar to people today, but see what you can pick out.  Knowing some of Ives’ musical landscape adds considerably to the appreciation of the portrait he has painted with it as a background. Ives wrote of this piece:

In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial.** During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity–a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness–reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of “Nature’s kinship with the lower order-man.”

After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear-the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and “Adestes Fideles” answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg.

After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and “we all march to town” to a Yankee stimulant-Reeves inspiring Second Regiment Quickstep-though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops-and in the silence of the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day .

I can never listen to that, especially as I live near a cemetery filled with Grand Army of the Republic badges next to weathered marble headstones, without a lump in my throat.

Ives was a careful reader of the New England Transcendentalists, especially Emerson.  Ives’ one extended piece of writing, his Essays Before a Sonata, (another online version here) originally published in 1920, is filled with Emersonian ideas, filtered as they are through Ives’ atmospheric and sloppy prose. The lack of editing, both in his music and his writings, is perhaps Ives’ weakest point.  Considering he was a preoccupied businessman who managed to accomplish at least three lifetime’s work in his relatively short productive span, I think it’s worth plowing through a little hazy writing to get at the gems of Emersonian thought as applied to music, a subject on which Emerson wrote very little.

There’s also no little humor in Ives, both in his music and writing. In his “Introductory Footnote” he says, “These prefatory essays were written by the composer for those who can’t stand his music–and the music for those who can’t stand his essays; to those who can’t stand either, the whole is respectfully dedicated.” I’m afraid this particular blog post is focused on his more serious side, although there is no lack of subtle mockery of Bronson, for example, in the “Alcott” movement of the Sonata mentioned next.

The occasion of these Essays was the publication of his large, complex Second Piano Sonata, titled, “Concord, Mass. 1840-60.” It has four movements, each a portrait of a Concord author, plural in the Alcott instance:

1. Emerson (Part 1) (Part 2)
2. Hawthorn.
3. The Alcotts.
4. Thoreau.

The Sonata is an enormous work, and I won’t try to analyze it, except to quote Bernard Herrmann, the composer probably best-known for his music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and who was a longtime friend of Ives:

The first movement, “Emerson,” is prefaced by the following comment:

There is an “oracle” at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony–in those four notes lies one of Beethoven’s greatest messages. We would place its translation above the relentlessness of fate knocking at the door, above the greater human-message of destiny, and strive to bring it towards the spiritual message of Emerson’s revelations–even to the “common heart” of Concord–the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened–and that the human will become the Divine!

This movement is divided into three sections, prose and verse and coda, the coda being one of the most superb pages in music. In its twilight mood, it is only comparable to the coda of the last movement of Brahm’s Symphony in F major. The scherzo tries to suggest Hawthorne’s fantastical adventures into the half- childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms–about the ghost of a man who never lived, or about something that will never happen, or something that is not. The third movement is a sketch in form of a free improvisation–of Beth Alcott at the old spinnet-piano, playing and improvising on old Scotch airs, hymn tunes, and on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This movement is constructed on simple, diatonic harmonies. The finale follows Thoreau’s thoughts on a day in Indian summer, at Walden. It is twilight, and the poet’s flute is heard out over the pond. “‘Tis an evening when the whole body is one sense.”

The links on the titles of the movements are to excellent performances of this Sonata by John Kirkpatrick, Ives’ first real piano champion, who played its public premier in 1938. The recordings are a transfer from a 1968 vinyl, I believe, so they’re a bit scratchy. But they really are the best readings I’ve ever heard of this piece, and I recommend spending some time with them.  You also might want to explore some of the CD’s available of this piece.

Here, also, is the YouTube file of the “Alcotts” movement, which is probably my favorite, as the character of Bronson Alcott and Louisa May (“Necessity’s Daughter”) have always affected me greatly. I drive by Orchard House almost every day on my way to work, and sometimes think I see the Shade of Jo and her sisters scampering behind the big tree, or Bronson sitting in the “Hillside Chapel” of his Concord School of Philosophy and Literature, ready to expound profoundly on any subject by the hour.

While this my be my usual effort at Music Appreciation, it also has something to do with the current situation of the American psyche, if I may use the term.  Ives is interesting to me, aside from his purely musical merit and the quality of his thought, because he was a genuine American of a sort I don’t know can exist any longer.

It seems our political and social thought and dialog, such as they are, have become crude travesties, in thrall to one or another rigid system, with too much of the country lapping up foreign and discredited ideas, the conflicts of which in the 20th century have wrecked a noticeable part of the ancient physical fabric of Europe and killed millions and the European soul in the bargain, while the Chinese, practical people as they are, finally withdrew from the brink before it ruined them utterly.

The other part of the country seems to be taken with such absolutes of private property and public economy as would have warmed the heart of an old Whig mill owner in Manchester in 1801.  Both sides, but particularly the first, seem intent on cutting off the nose of the country to spite the face of the other.  Where, now, is our American practicality and common sense?

Where in all this do we find thinkers and writers of the character of an Emerson? Where do we find artists with the independent, Yankee spirit of an Ives? Maybe they exist. I see very good political and social writing all the time, and know that there’s quite a bit of good, new music being composed. But everything I read or hear, despite my efforts at engagement, fills me, in some deep place, with dread. It’s as if I have stumbled into a terrible Dark Age, in which there are still clever people, ignorant as they may have become, but nowhere do I find essential spiritual comfort, wholesome-minded and renewing, as I do in Emerson or in Ives.

Ives was mainly a programmatic composer who evoked ordinary American life. He wrote music about small-town events, places he knew in New England, scenes in New York City, and pieces inspired by well-known American political and literary figures. In a sense, he had the outlook of a Norman Rockwell, but wedded to an astonishing avant-garde musical technique. More to the point, he had the outlook of the New England Transcendentalists, who found spiritual meaning in everyday life and in ordinary Nature.  Ives always had, behind his depictions of life and quotes from other music, a deeper, spiritual and cosmic purpose.

The thing that leads me to despair when I consider Ives, is the nearly complete absence of this today. Our artistic sensibilities, particularly in “serious” art or music, seem to be foreign and imported along with our left-wing politics, leaving little space for the genuinely American. Ives does not mock or condescend to small-town life, as journalists, writers and artists of all stripes do today. He does not sneer at the village band playing the Second Regiment Quick-Step, missing a beat or two, but instead surrounds them with a another story, deeper and more spiritual, that in itself springs from those ordinary people.

The condescension and self-loathing in American intellectual, political, and artistic life today is an acid that eats at my soul. I hope you don’t think it too self-indulgent to say this, while pointing to an example from the past that is so much different.

Perhaps it’s always been this way to those who must live through the anxieties of any particular time. I have found in Emerson a few words of ultimate comfort, as he inevitably has, to those of us Americans who despair at the present and think things are uniquely bad. I suppose we ought to be reminded there never was a Golden Age, but that this country may indeed represent the last, best hope for mankind and the renewal of the human spirit. Emerson gives us the full brunt of what always seems to have been wrong with America, and then his reasons why it should turn out well. I pray he was right:

I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit, to get knowledge by raps on midnight tables. to learn the economy of the mind by phrenology, or skill without study, or mastery without apprenticeship, or the sale of goods through pretending that they sell, or power through making believe you are powerful, or through a packed jury or caucus, bribery and “repeating” votes, or wealth by fraud, They think they have got it, but they have got something else,-a crime which calls for another crime, and another devil behind that: these are steps to suicide, infamy and the harming of mankind. We countenance each other in this life of show, puffing, advertisement and manufacture of public opinion; and excellence is lost sight of in the hunger for sudden performance and praise.–Society and Solitude, Chapter 1.

Gentlemen, the development of our American internal resources, the extension to the utmost of the commercial system, and the appearance of new moral causes which are to modify the state, are giving an aspect of greatness to the Future, which the imagination fears to open. One thing is plain for all men of common sense and common conscience, that here, here in America, is the home of man. After all the deductions which are to be made for our pitiful politics, which stake every gravest national question on the silly die, whether James or whether Jonathan shall sit in the chair and hold the purse; after all the deduction is made for our frivolities and insanities, there still remains an organic simplicity and liberty, which, when it loses its balance, redresses itself presently, which offers opportunity to the human mind not known in any other region.–”The Young American.”


I can’t leave this without a few more words.

First, to my conservative friends, you should know that Ives was not one of you. As he was progressive in his music, so was he Progressive in his politics. My point about him in relation to modern politics is that he was an American and a New England Yankee, with everything those implied. He was as unlikely to follow the dictates of the Comintern in his day as to lap up ideas from the Daily Kos, were he alive now, and even less likely to listen to Rush Limbaugh for more than a few minutes.

There is a strain of American “progressive” thought, implicit in the New England Transcendentalists, that sought more perfect democracy, the Abolition of slavery, free and equal public education, governmental efficiency and elimination of corruption and favoritism, regulation of the influence of the “moneyed interest,”  Temperance, the protection of Nature for the common good, etc. These things were historically associated with the Republican Party in New England, who were heirs, ultimately, to the old Federalists.

These were not wild-eyed radicals in their love of some collectivist ideal. Neither were they Jeffersonian small-government Democrats, with their hypocritical cant of “each man under his own vine” and “States’ Rights” covering for the enslavement of millions.  New England Republicans, mocked in the past as “Goo-Goo’s” for their commitment to Good Government, trace their roots to the intensely communal Puritans and their version of a proper Christian life.

Puritans never passed up a chance to Do Good, individually or collectively, as they were impelled to as an external sign of their Christianity as part of  the Body of Christ. Yet, each of them had his or her own intensely personal relationship with God, and to a Salvation not meted out to Merit, but to Faith, and that by God’s unknowable Will alone.

Thus were the tensions between the individual and collective expressed in the very mothers’s milk of our own first, distinctively American, tradition of communal responsibility.  In modern New England, politicians such as Frank Sargent, William Weld, Olympia Snowe, and Joe Lieberman have been the uncomfortable heirs to this ambiguous and tense legacy, long since stripped of external signs of its Christian roots.

Charles Ives would have been, I think, more comfortable with these, and his own turn-of-the-century Republican Progressives, than any of the pro-crypto Marxist modern “progressives” or doctrinaire “conservatives” that otherwise pester us today.  From what I’ve read, Ives was a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, like many Yankee former Republicans, who found their liberal and reformist social ideas squeezed out of the 1920’s Republican Party, and taken up, however strangely and hypocritically, by the party of the Solid South and Jim Crow.

Such is another example our “pitiful politics.”

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How to Pluck from the Memory a Rooted Sorrow

April 23, 2010 at 12:55 am (By Theo Boehm) ()

Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening.

* * * * *

I’ve been thinking of putting up more videos of Christina Pluhar and her ensemble, “l’Arpeggiata” to illustrate topics about both instruments and musical forms.  Her group does a lot of early 17th century music on well-played period instruments, often accompanying very good singers. She’s one of my favorite performers and looms large in my YouTube favorites. I’m in the middle of buying everything I can find that she’s recorded, she’s that good.

The first half of the 17th century is a fascinating time. Along with nearly everything else in Europe during those strange, violent and dramatic years, music underwent enormous changes. Because styles, techniques and instruments were in a state of flux, it has been difficult to convincingly reconstruct the music for modern ears. Unlike playing 18th century music on period instruments, which any motivated and competent modern player could do, the 17th century requires deeper scholarship, insight, and musical flexibility.

Ms. Pluhar frequently plays the theorbo, a favorite instrument of the time, and I was looking for something to illustrate it, when I came across the following video. It’s by Regina Albanez, a Brazilian musician living in Holland. She demonstrates the Baroque lute—which I’ve blogged about here, and here—the theorbo, and, her obvious favorite, the Baroque guitar. She speaks a charming Flemish-accented Dutch, so she’s easy to understand even without the subtitles:

So far, so good—a perfect example of the serendipity of the web. But Ms. Albanez actually gave me tears of joy with the following video. She plays the well-known “Canarios” by Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710) on a Baroque guitar of the sort known to Sanz. It has 10 strings in 5 courses, tied-on frets, wooden tuning pegs, and is smaller and more lightly-built than later guitars. The piece is from Instrucción de música sobre la Guitarra Española, published as a complete edition in 1697.

She’s a fine guitarist. Her technique is excellent, and her phrasing and dynamics near perfection. But what impresses me, and helped pluck out some of my own rooted sorrows, is the quiet modesty and focused joy of her playing. There is nothing that distracts from the music. For a few minutes, she’s one of those players who becomes the music, which I suppose is all you can ask of any musician.

And then she ends with a little smile.

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The Harmonious Blacksmith

April 10, 2010 at 2:01 am (By Theo Boehm)

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)

For no other reason than I think this is a fun piece and the interpretation by Trevor Pinnock so spot-on, I’d like to offer you the last movement of Handel’s Suite for harpsichord No. 5 in E major, HWV 430, a set of variations called “The Harmonious Blacksmith.”

Here is the reasonably good Wikipedia article about the piece. The name “Harmonious Blacksmith” apparently was not given until the 19th century.

This is odd, because this piece seems to have blacksmithing built into it, no matter when it was named. One of the reasons is the effect of the slightly distant key of E major. Most keyboard tuning systems in Handel’s day had noticeably different tone colors in different keys, owing to the uneven thirds inherent in the unequal temperaments used at the time. In every system I’m familiar with, the “sharp” keys, starting with A major, become increasingly bright and almost “clangy”-sounding, because thirds such as E-G#, A-C#, B-D#, or, my favorite, F#-A#, are often quite a bit sharper than they are in equal temperament used for pianos today, in which all the thirds are equally sharp.

The dominant (V) chord of E major, B major (B-D#-F#), has two rather out-of-tune intervals, courtesy of any of the tuning systems likely to have been used by Handel. This chord has a remarkably metallic sound on the harpsichord. The immediate impression of this piece played, as it is here, with historical tuning on a good harpsichord, is distinctly one of clanging. That, combined with the characteristic “hammer blow” figures in the bass in the first variation, and other obvious imitations of the sounds of a smithy throughout the entire thing, leaves very little doubt that this was intended as a “character piece,” featuring a blacksmith at his anvil. The fast runs in the last variation nicely represent showers of sparks, as well.

The question is whether there was a real blacksmith who was the inspiration for this piece, or, more likely, the mythical blacksmiths behind the famous story of the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras discovering the laws of musical harmony by listening to hammers striking in a forge. The sounds Pythagoras heard that harmonized well when struck together were the result of hammers that had mathematical relationships—their masses were simple ratios or fractions of each other. Here is a good, illustrated summary that also mentions Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith.

The Pythagorean story was passed down to the Middle Ages and later in Boethius’ early 6th century treatise, De Musica. “Pythagoras at the Forge” had become a well-known musical conceit, old in Handel’s day, that connected tuning and temperament with this legend.

As I said, Handel must have chosen the key of E major for its “metallic” sounds, but there could be something a little more sly behind the obvious symbolism of the story and achieving the desired effect to tell it on the harpsichord. The tension between the mythical Pythagorean purity of simple numbers, and the compromises of tuning necessary to play in all keys—even the E major that makes the instrument sound like an anvil—might have seemed a hidden piece of wit to Handel, fit for connoisseurs who understood that the dirty end of keyboard temperament got to represent mathematical and Classical perfection.

As philosophy and religion have been saying for thousands of years, nothing is perfect in this fallen world. But is seems to be our fate to grasp for perfection and order, even if it’s to be imagined under swinging hammers or among out-of-tune strings.

The gentleman at the harpsichord uses this part of our nature to draw us from the coarse thoughts and crude instincts that also occur naturally to us. If he can truly succeed for a few minutes,  I suppose that is all you can ask of any music.

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The Last Instrument Fit for a Gentleman to Play.

December 9, 2009 at 7:50 pm (By Theo Boehm)

A little music by Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750) to warm your cold, snowy evening, played by the incomparable Robert Barto. This is a Courante in Bb major.

Weiss was an almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach (1685-1750),  a friend of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and a sometimes friendly competitor with Johann Sebastian Bach himself.

Weiss’ style is astonishingly like Bach’s.  It’s pretty obvious that Bach’s lute music, like the rest of his output, was the ultimate expression of its genre.  You can hear another take on this style, however, by Weiss. Although Bach has long been given first place among Baroque composers, and perhaps composers generally, in lute music, at least, J.S. Bach seems to have been only first among equals.

Here’s another Weiss piece, a Presto in A major. It’s recorded live in front of an audience, so you hear more room echo and noise. I think it’s a wonderful fantasy to imagine having this gentleman over to play by your fire on a December evening:

(Reposted from A Quiet Evening.)

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