Touchdowns and Doctor Atomic

Touchdowns and Doctor Atomic

As I am writing this, it is the Monday morning after Superbowl Sunday here in America.  I had an odd experience on Saturday, the day before the big game.  I was at the market in the afternoon, and as I walked up to the butcher counter I recognized I had stepped into a “man-zone”.  Men stood in a group in front of the counter, admiring and pointing at pieces of beef, and strangers were engaged in animated discussion about the players and teams in the Super Bowl.  The butchers were chatting up the customers, who were well versed in each teams strengths.  I have to admit that I don’t follow sports very much.  I am a man’s man, and usually glean enough from the headlines to say something acceptable in these situations, but this time around I didn’t even know the teams involved in the big game.  I was as out of place at the meat counter, as was the basket I carried, full of oranges, apples and bananas for a fruit smoothie to be made later.  

ColosseumFor a long time I didn’t understand the group psychology of the rabid sports fan.  I am such a private hermit, stuck in my own mind too often, with a nose in a book or earphones on listening to music.  I engage in lots of individual experiences, connecting with the author or characters of a book, sharing musical experiences with the composer and performers of a work.  The sports experience seems to be much more a communal cultural event.  People come together to root for their team, wear team logos, connect with other fans and feel themselves like winners when their team is victorious.  Sports champions are idolized, and as a culture, we seem to value the communal sports event greatly, at least to the extent that there is a great deal of money involved.

Confession time.  I held a lot of resentment for how much importance our culture places on sports.  My field of study in school (music) falls into the humanities side of university life, and the humanities have not been valued very much since the end of World War II.  Science, technology, and mathematics have been king, queen and emperor in the most recent past, along with professional and vocational tracks.  There is a great deal of emphasis on the economic merit of your schooling, i.e. what job are you training for.  I had a great deal of resentment for how athletes or students of the sciences seemingly never had to justify what they were doing.  Students and scholars in the humanities seem to ALWAYS feel like they have to prove why what they do has some value.  I struggled greatly with the idea of why it was important to study music.  Likewise, I think the student of English, philosophy, art, literature, theater or any other humanity is constantly facing the question of why they are spending time with their subject.  “What are you going to do with a degree in that?”

For the most part, I grew weary of the question and became even more private with my musical activities.  Some musicians just surround themselves with other musicians, and only run in circles where the question of “Why Music?” just isn’t asked.  The inherent value of musical activity is assumed, but not articulated.  It is self-evident, and time is spent on music making rather than justifying musical activity.  I turned inward and began to listen, read, write and compose simply for myself and the desk drawer.  I’m a little like Henry David Thoreau, without the pond, just doing my own thing and not caring what anyone thinks.  I haven’t tried to articulate why music (or the arts and humanities) is of valuable importance in a very long time.  

The usual thought for someone advocating the Great Books or Western Canon, the “classics” that I have been touching upon in my previous two posts, is that the Great Books teach us principles that have an everlasting pertinence to all people everywhere.  Principles of what it is to be human, in any time and any place.  (The Great Books people have been accused of many things, but rarely accused of humility.)  But even such a brilliant man as Harold Bloom is reduced to empty vacuous pieties when responding to the question of why read Shakespeare, his favorite author.  “The answer to the question ‘Why Shakespeare’ must be ‘Who else is there?’”,  writes Bloom in his giant volume titled “Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human”.  A little later on in the introduction he writes, “He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go”, and “If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare”.  All high praise, but not very effective in answering the question of “Why?”.  

Six SongsIn music, there seems to be a universal presence of music making activities in all known cultures and civilizations.  In the Daniel Levitin book “The World in Six Songs”, he points out that “There is no known culture now or anytime in the past that lacks it [music], and some of the oldest human-made artifacts found at archaeological sites are musical instruments.”  Levitin goes on to present his ideas on how there are basically six kinds of songs that humans create, songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love.  He has some very interesting, and perhaps radical things to say in his book, and certainly shows some of the ways human culture use music.  Elena Mannes points out in her book “The Power of Music”, that “We humans know instinctively that music has primal power.”  She points out that “Archaeologist in Slovenia recently unearthed a flute that had been fashioned from the femur of a bear by our Neanderthal cousins.”, a flute that is 36,000 years old and more than twice as old as the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.  So people have seemingly always made music, and used it for lots of stuff, but I still don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question of “Why?”.  

The several arguments that are the usual defense of the humanities.  One is to say that the humanities are a study of the meaning making practices of a culture.  People express meaning through their art/literature/music etc.  Another argument for the study of the humanities is that they contribute in some way to the individual and collective happiness of humans.  A way of working out the issues, inner conflicts, and inner struggles of what it means to be human.  A third argument is one that is often presented to government agencies when searching for funding for the arts.  That argument is that democracy needs the humanities, because they teach us a range of ways of understanding what a society is, how human beings live and work together. What the underlying values are, what we mean by justice or the human good, in ways that are not defined simply by economic worth. The fourth common argument in support of the humanities says simply that they have intrinsic value, which is little more than saying they are important because they are important.  This thought plays well among artists, writers, actors, musicians, and philosophers who already believe what they are doing has value, and does little to convince someone who doesn’t see the value of the humanities of what that intrinsic value is.  

I am certainly not claiming to have a well articulated, all-persuasive argument for why music or any of the humanities is valuable.  In 1997 Don Campbell wrote a stupid, stupid book titled “The Mozart Effect”, discussing the theory that listening to Mozart may temporarily raise a person’s IQ and have other beneficial mental effects.  This was based on a misunderstanding and bastardization of a 1993 study published in Nature about what effect listening to some music by Mozart had on a specific test of spatial reasoning.  This led to a sequel book entitled “The Mozart Effect for Children” and an entire line of musical recording that hopeful parents were supposed to play for their toddlers to make them smart and have higher IQ scores.   I call it “stupid” because it reduces the importance of Mozart, and by extension music, to how it can make kids perform better in science, math and technology.  Humanities are again subservient to the ever present technocracy that has existed since World War II.  

Mozart, Andante from Piano Concerto 21

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer

I think the tortured figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer reveals some of the ways that the sciences and humanities might interact and be equally important to human life and culture.  Oppenheimer became known as the “father of the atomic bomb”, for his role in the Manhattan Project which created the first nuclear weapons.  He was deeply troubled by the technology with which he worked, physics that could be used for a peaceful, plentiful energy source or also used to created the most destructive weapons that have ever existed.  Once it was clear that a weapon was technically feasible, for Oppenheimer “The issues became purely the military, the political and the humane problems of what you were going to do about it once you had it.”  He was said to have thought to himself “”I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, after the first successful nuclear explosion test.  During the development of the atomic bomb, he was an invaluable adviser to the highest levels of the American military and government.  After WWII ended, he fell out of favor. Oppenheimer was hounded by J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, called up to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, and ultimately stripped of his security clearance for potential communist sympathies.  


Doctor AtomicOppenheimer’s story has been dealt with in the Heinar Kipphardt’s play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer as well as the play Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith.   A biography entitled American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin won a Pulitzer Prize.  Of all the treatments of Oppenheimer’s story, I am most familiar with the 2005 John Adams opera, Doctor Atomic.  The theme that is most prominent is the question of the scientist’s’ responsibility toward humanity, and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s struggle with those questions.  Not just the scientific achievement of what we CAN do, but the questions of what SHOULD we do.  These are questions of values,  judgement, of what is good and what is right.  These questions are wrestled with in the area of the Humanities.  Questions about science and it’s capabilities, and man’s ego,  were central to the story in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Dr. Frankenstein messes around with creating life and creates a monster.  The early Japanese Godzilla films started as a similar cautionary tale of an enormous, violent, prehistoric sea monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation, a monster that was a metaphor for the destructive power of the nuclear bomb before it was a pop icon.  The German legend of Faust has a scholar selling his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.  Even in the Biblical Garden of Eden, the fruit that gets Adam and Eve into the trouble that causes them to be kicked out of paradise is from the tree of Knowledge.  Oppenheimer’s is a real life story that fights with the issues of how the atomic fruit of the technical knowledge he worked on has kicked humanity out of the Eden of the Pre-Nuclear age.  

I still may not be able to clearly articulate what the intrinsic value of studying the humanities really is, but it is clear that the values, questions, ethics, and human qualities that are being worked out in all of the various subjects in the humanities are real, relevant and unavoidable.  

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, “Batter My Heart”

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, “Am I Your Light?”

On The Transmigration of Souls

transmigrationI have a bit of a serious one to go with everyone’s tea and toast this morning.  John Adams (born 1947) was commissioned in January of 2002 by the New York Philarmonic and Lincoln Center’s Great Performers to do the utterly impossible.  He was to compose music in honor of the heroes and in memory of the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and have it ready for performance near the one year anniversary of the attacks in September 2002.  The attacks in New York and Washington DC, as well as the fourth plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field when the passengers fought back with the hijackers, all together are one of the biggest tragedies and one day loss of life to ever occur on American soil.  The commision came a mere four months after the event, when all of America was still reeling.  The music would have to be finished in a very short six months, with no room for error, if there were to be any significant rehearsal before the scheduled performance.  How could Adams be expected to formulate an emotional reaction to the events and incorporate it into music when that emotional reaction was still taking place?

This commission was not Roy Harris writing music in 1943 inspired by the Gettysburg Address, a civil war speech given eighty years earlier in 1863.  The mourning, the loss, the emotional steps of grief were still being endured on both personal and national levels.  I would have thought, “No way.  Can’t be done.  Not in New York, not so soon, and probably not for another 10 years.”  Somehow a piece of music was created in spite of those circumstances.

John Adams offered the following in an interview about the piece in 2002:

I want to avoid words like “requiem” or “memorial” when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn’t share. If pressed, I’d probably call the piece a “memory space”. It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event–in this case to 9/11–is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event. “Transmigration” means “the movement from one place to another” or “the transition from one state of being to another.” It could apply to populations of people, to migrations of species, to changes of chemical compositon, or to the passage of cells through a membrane. But in this case I mean it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience transformed.

Everyone has had soul-changing experiences, and reflecting on those events is the kind of thing Adams is trying to tap into with this work.  Sometimes those experiences are choices we have made, either lifting us up to a greater level of self-actualization, or setting us on a path that drains the life out of us and leaves us dying inside.  In this case, the events of 9/11 were not any sort of choice, but a deadly assault inflicted upon both the victims and the survivors.

9-11-flag22Adams has created a hypnotic collage with this work.  The live performers include a children’s chorus, an adult chorus and a very large symphony orchestra.  Layered over the live performance is a recording of street sounds and the names of victims read by friends and family members.   In the immediate aftermath of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City, it was known that there was a massive loss of human life, but also mass confusion about who might have escaped or survived.  Communication was impossible, phone lines were jammed or inoperable, and the bridges to the island of Manhattan were closed to isolate the area.  Soon every available wall, telephone pole and street sign contained missing persons posters hand made by people searching for their loved ones.  As time continued, the nature of these postings themselves transmigrated from missing persons, to more like makeshift memorials for those lost.  The majority of the text for the two choruses and all of the names recited on the prerecorded tape was taken from those posters.

There is a solo trumpet part as well, and the nature of the construction of this piece and the featured trumpet will have the listener clearly look at Charles Ive’s The Unanswered Question as a precedent.  The premiere of Transmigration  with the New York Philarmonic was conducted by Lorin Maazel, and the recording won several Grammy awards in 2005.  (In a sad coincidence, the music world has suffered a great loss just this month July 2014 with the passing of the great Lorin Maazel at the age of 84.)  John Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the piece in 2003, but I’m not sure there is a creative award high enough for the accomplishment of composing under those circumstances.

The complete 25 minute work is available on Spotify

John Adams, On The Transmigration of Souls


The Mysteries of Minimalism

Minimalist Music.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.

Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin

Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin

Originally, that was going to be the whole post.

Then I thought I could elaborate with something like this:

Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap repetitive New-Age crap repetitive new-agecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecrap ………

I didn’t care for Minimalist Music, I didn’t like the recordings of the composers that were lumped together as minimalists and I didn’t understand why they were so popular.

Here is an example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Philip Glass Glassworks : Opening

Its all just consonant mush.  No form, no themes.  No beginning, middle and end.  As far as I’m concerned it could end in the middle of the track, or could go on for ten more minutes.  It doesn’t seem to make any difference.  I sincerely believe that understanding something of the forms that classical music contains can give a deeper meaning to the listener.  Theme and variations form,  Sonata form, or rondo form:  these are all conventions that help the listener follow where they are in a piece.  Even if a piece has some original formal structure, repeated listening helps one uncover that structure and leads to a deeper understanding of the work.  This minimalist stuff has none of that, it’s just repetitive new-age crap.  Or so I thought.

Then I read something that helped me unlock some understanding of minimalism.  The music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass was very early on referred to as the  New York Hypnotic School.   This gave me the clue that this stuff was MEANT to be formless.  On the About page of this blog I said something about taking each piece of music on its own terms and not asking it to be something it wasn’t trying to be.  That is exactly the mistake I was making with the Philip Glass piece above.   It is supposed to sound formless, without a beginning or end.  It is hypnotic, trance like music.  You are dropped into the middle of something infinite and flowing.  The rhythms shift and come in and out of phase as some musical elements are brought to the foreground and  others fade into the background.  The listener is supposed to lose their place as their attention wanders from bit to bit.

You can’t listen to this music in the car, or while doing something else.  It has to be in a live performance, or at least a recording playing in a quiet room with nothing else going on.  It is meant to be a formless, meditative experience.  As a matter of taste, one can still like or dislike this kind of music.  My point is that it has to be judged a success or failure as a piece based on how well it achieves the meditation that it was trying to create.  You shouldn’t fault it for not being a minuet, or a twelve bar blues, or not having the structure of a sonata.  It was never trying to be that.

John Adams is another composer that is associated with minimalism. (It is good to note that someone else came up with the name minimalism, not the composers.) One of his pieces I really, really like is John’s Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet and recording of prepared piano.  I don’t know if it is the best example of minimalism.  It is definitely a work I admire from a composer ACCUSED of minimalism.  I hope you enjoy it too.

– Rich