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?”

Dr Eliot’s’ Five Foot Shelf

Dr Eliot’s’ Five Foot Shelf

Dr. Charles Eliot

Dr. Charles Eliot

I came of age as a bright-eyed student in the middle of another flare up of the canon wars.  Not “cannon”, as in the large gunpowder piece of artillery that shoots steel balls between pirate ships.  Not “Canon” the camera company, in some sort of field battle where photography equipment is launched across a field using catapults.  In this case I am referring to “canon” as in a body of historical works in music/literature/art that are recognized as masterpieces worthy of study.  There have been many attempts to establish and codify what constitutes the “Western Canon” over the last 150 years in literature, philosophy, political writing, music, art and drama.  The idea of the “Western Canon” is central to educational perennialism. It is the thought that there are pertinent issues and ideas that are relevant to all humans everywhere throughout history.  All humans are people, and learning should first be about people and principles that apply to all people and the human condition.  

western_canonAn early attempt to make a list of books to be included in the “canon” was done by Dr. Charles Eliot, a president of Harvard University who collected a set of “Harvard Classics” in 1909 (proving that this argument is over 100 years old).  More recently, the Great Books program of the University of Chicago has sparked great debate in the late 1980’s and 1990’s.  Allan Bloom wrote a book called “The Closing of the American Mind” that outlined his thoughts of how higher education has failed students by not using the great books more.  The brilliant Harold Bloom (no relation) wrote a book in 1995 titled “The Western Canon” which also promoted the idea of a body of works that are authoritative in western culture and should be taught.  Harold is a brilliant man and professor of Humanities at Yale, a thoughtful guy who suffers from insomnia and spends nights reading just about everything.  He has all the credentials to suggest what might be a good book.  However, every attempt at creating a list of canonical works has been controversial.

The problem with making a list is that it divides the world into two parts;  those things on the list and those that are not.  Much of the argument in the 1990’s was about what was NOT on the list.  Critics argued that the list was made by old white guys and included almost exclusively other old dead white men from Europe and early America.  If the canon is supposed to include universal “truths”, why is there no diversity?  Are old dead white guys the only set of humans with access to universal principles?  Moreover, this criticism played well into the constant, whining question of students asking “What does this dusty old stuff have to do with me, why do I have to read this?”

Teacher Leave Those Kids Alone

The same sort of canonical process goes on in “classical” music, wherein the season long programs of professional orchestras are heavyly laden with the “standard” repertoire.  Every season includes Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Brahms.  Music Directors feel compelled to provide many of the same old warhorses year after year.  The repertoire is big enough so that every season isn’t a carbon copy of the last, but over time audiences have a lot of familiarity with the kinds of things included each year.  There is only a rare occasion that my local Detroit Symphony Orchestra plays something on a concert that I haven’t heard before.  Certainly one of the properties that makes something Good Music, and included in the repertoire, is that it is worth hearing more than once.  There is a depth to great music (and art and literature) that makes it worth hearing over and over, revealing new insights with repeated exposure.  

Beethoven Symphony No 3, Movement 1

As a composer, I also think the “standard” repertoire is killing orchestra music.  There are only so many concerts, so many of hours of music that are performed each year.  There is little room for new music.  Once or twice a season, a short work may be performed, and inevitably it is paired with something like Beethoven’s Fifth or another favorite that makes it worthwhile for the audience to suffer through the new work to get to the “good stuff”.  Because there is little opportunity for performance, few composers are interested in writing new orchestra music.  Many modern composers concentrate on chamber music to be performed by small groups, often groups they already know and by whom have a chance to have their compositions performed.  The orchestra repertoire has become a closed feedback loop, with orchestras playing works from the standard repertoire because that is what audiences are familiar with, and audiences being only familiar with those works because that is all the orchestra plays.  

In the world of jazz music, a similar fight has gone on for years and created its own controversy.  At the center of the maelstrom is Wynton Marsalis, director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and world-famous trumpeter.  He has been an advocate for jazz music, and made great efforts to elevate the art of jazz to a cultural equal with any other art music in America.  He and critic Stanley Crouch have gone a long way to identifying a canon of jazz music and musicians that are essential.  They have run into the same controversies and problems in making a list of important stuff that every other list maker has run into.  The stuff on the list is never the real problem, it is the stuff that gets left off that creates a stir.  As historical advisors and contributors to the Ken Burns film “Jazz” for PBS, Marsalis and Crouch guided Burns to focus very heavily on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in particular. Armstrong and Ellington are geniuses and no one can quibble about their importance, but other important figures got small amounts of screen time and some people’s favorites didn’t make the film at all.  Crouch and Marsalis don’t seem to think very much of so-called “avant garde” jazz music or jazz fusion as pioneered in the 1970’s, so those things didn’t fit their definition of “Jazz” for inclusion in the Burns film.  The same old problem of authority arose for Marsalis and Crouch as it did for those trying to create a canon of literature.  That problem being, who gets to decide what is important enough to be included on the list?  Who should have the power to determine what should be read or seen or listened to?

Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing”

My own humble view on the idea of any sort of canon of Western culture is this.  There is nothing included on any version of the Western Canon or standard repertoire that is unimportant.  They are all masterpieces and well worth anyone’s time to read or study.  Shakespeare for example, is very important and has much to offer all of us both as the historical figure showing us a vision of his own period, and as a universal poet that speaks to us with a contemporary voice.  The comedies of Shakespeare are all about love and the romantic loving relationships between people.  If you are a human being (of any gender or race) and have been in love or hope to be in love, there is something personally relevant for you in Shakespeare’s comedies.  The problem is to think that they are the ONLY important works.  There are plenty of things just as important that did not make the list, whatever version of whatever list you happen to be looking at. Socrates, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, as well as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are all valuable.  But they are only a beginning.

Benedict in Love, Much Ado About Nothing

One mistake is to think that the canon of Western culture holds the answers, some sort of universal set of truths.  It doesn’t, and in fact the so-called Great Books don’t even always agree with themselves.  If the answers, the truths, the solutions to the problem of the human condition were already written, the world would not be the troubled place it is today.  The value in studying great works in how it teaches us to think.  You don’t have to agree with Plato, Chaucer, Milton, Goethe, Tolstoy, Freud, Proust or Joyce, but the benefit is in arguing with them.  Reading their ideas and deciding for yourself if you agree or disagree and why.  Get angry with one of these writers and put together your thoughts on why their writing is a big pile of steaming crud.  The important thing is using your brain to formulate your position and rise to the challenge of the discourse.  Wrestling with masterpieces builds the skills to critically analyze the culture and institutions around us.  If you can argue with Plato, you can easily figure out why any political candidate is full of prunes.  You can be a thinking member of society and not be fooled or manipulated by forces around you.  A person doesn’t learn the answers from the canon, a person learns how to learn.  Education should not be exclusively vocational.  

Renaissance Man – St. Crispen Day Speech

Ancient societies were unequal, and it is true especially of historical works that much of what has been preserved for us to read or hear was from old dead white guys.  There is nothing wrong with the works in the canon of Great Books or the standard repertoire of music.  The other mistake is to think that they are the only works possible to teach critical thinking and great ideas. There are plenty of writings and works of art from other cultures that could serve similar purposes.  The point is to engage the mind and develop the ability to be a thoughtful person.  History was unkind, however, and we are only passed down the works that had the opportunity to exist. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, had a sister who was also a musical prodigy.  Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart went on some of the early tours of Europe that Leopold paraded his children on, and amazed audiences performing right alongside her younger brother.  She had the potential and skill to be as important a musician as her brother, but not the opportunity.  Her musical training and activities stopped when she was 18 years old, as she was no longer a novelty as a child and had no future of a musical career in 18th century Europe.  So we have no great symphonies composed by Maria Mozart, and we are poorer because of it.  
My solution is straightforward.  Read everything.  Listen to everything.  Literature, music, art, theater, philosophy  and the like.  I agree with the philosopher John Searle, when he suggests that there shouldn’t be one fixed unchanging canon, but rather a “certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality”, and that the list of what is part of the canon should be constantly revised, changed and expanded.  It is the process that is important,  not the final list.  By the way, I have a much bigger shelf than old Dr. Eliot, 🙂


The Big Seven,  Something Different and A One Night Stand

The Big Seven, Something Different and A One Night Stand

Captain’s Log, Stardate 11-2015

Anyone who has followed my humble attempts at a blog here knows I have been listening to a great deal of Mozart’s music in recent months.  Most recently, I have been swimming in Mozart operas.  Currently I am working my way through the seven of Wolfgang’s 22 operas that have stayed in the standard repertoire.  In fact, three of them are in the top ten most performed operas today, according to the OperaBase website.  I am diving deeper into the study of these works than I ever had opportunity to in the past.  I have acquired full scores to all seven, which include Idomeneo, The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute.  My next self-imposed assignment is to listen to recordings of each while following along with the score.

GS33818I think I am in prime form to get the most out of listening while following the written music.  It has taken a bit of preparation to get to this point.  First I had to familiarize myself with the synopsis of each work, the general outline of the story.  Get to know the players, the characters, and in some cases just figure out how to pronounce their names correctly!  Next I acquainted myself with the libretto, with english translation, so I knew exactly what was being sung/said while it was happening.  Watching performances on video, with subtitles, has been very helpful in this process.  Still, studying a couple of different translations of the full libretto has brought a deeper understanding of the nuances of the words.  Of course, just when I think I am getting a bit of a handle on the Italian language, I run into The Abduction or The Magic Flute which are in German.  The whole business of various languages keeps me very humble.

Madamina, il catalogo è questo, Leporello’s catalog Aria from Don Giovanni

exile-on-main-st-600x600As wonderful as the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is, keeping my head and heart in the late 1700’s has left me at times with the feeling that something is missing.  The Mozart is beautiful, cerebral, moving, lyrical and absolutely magic at times.  Spending weeks listening to little else has made my ears sensitive to the idiom and gestures of the Viennese classical style with which Wolfgang worked.  Alas, I am still not a child of 18th century Vienna, and as brilliant as the genius of Mozart is, a few things have grown in the last 250 years.  A great deal of music has been written that makes your hips move, as well as your head and heart.  I have found myself at times making use of the service at Spotify, and spending some time listening to Exile On Main Street, the great Rolling Stones double album released in 1972.  Quite a contrast to The Magic Flute, but all I can do here is report the facts.  In 1972, Mick Jagger’s voice was in fine form and the fellas put out this big collection of songs influenced by rock, blues, country, gospel and anything that sounded good to them.  The results all sound good to me.

Shake Your Hips, The Rolling Stones

The last bit of this journal-like entry to my blog is about an opportunity that fell into my mailbox.  After visiting the Detroit Opera House to see La Boheme last month, I was sent an offer to purchase some additional tickets to upcoming productions at 50% off.  I took advantage of it, and this month will be seeing a production of The Passenger, an opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg.  This is part of what David DiChiera has called the “Opera In Our Time” series of productions for the Michigan Opera Theatre.  Detroit will be only the third city in the United States to mount a production of the work.  The description of the work from the MOT website reads like this:

In Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera — only recently discovered after having been suppressed for over 40 years — a West German diplomat, Walter (David Danholt), and his wife, Liese (Daveda Karanas), are ocean-bound for a new posting in Brazil. Unbeknownst to her husband, Liese once served as an SS officer in Auschwitz. There’s another woman (Adrienn Miksch) on the same cruise ship, a passenger whose mere existence haunts Liese. Guilt and denial, lies and truth, fear and courage, and love —they’re all here in an artistic and emotional experience you’ll never forget. Also featuring Marion Pop (Cyrano) and conducted by Michigan Opera Theatre veteran Steven Mercurio. According to John ven Rhein of The Chicago Tribune, The Passenger is “an experience in the theater that is not to be missed.”

The Passenger

The production takes place physically and theatrically on two levels.  The upper level of the stage depicts the cruise ship, after World War II, where the former SS officer thinks she has run into a former prisoner of the concentration camp she worked during the war.  The lower level of the stage portrays a flashback to happenings in the concentration camp itself.  As a piece of Holocaust art, it is not going to be lighthearted at all, but promises to be a very moving experience.  For me it is going to also be a very different sort of night at the opera.  Usually, as you might guess, I do a good deal of preparation and study to make sure I get the most out of the evening.  With The Passenger, I do not have easy access to recordings, videos, scores or librettos.  It will be much more of a one night stand, rather than the longer term relationship I usually have with these works.  I am forced to just go to the opera and experience the entire thing live as it unfolds.  That is not a bad thing, just a great change from my usual method.  I’m sure it will leave me wanting more.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, “The PASSENGER” , fragment