Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
That's Where You'll Find Me
Maybe Dorothy Sings About the Wrong Thing
Saturday, August 12, 2017 12:19 pm
There's a misalignment in The Wizard of Oz.

What is its moral? "There's no place like home." Dorothy has found herself in a land over the rainbow, and yet her ultimate desire — the fulfillment of which she asks of the Wizard — is to return to Kansas. Near the end, Glinda prompts Dorothy to articulate the lesson that she, Dorothy, has learned; and Dorothy replies:
If I ever go looking for my heart's desire, I won't look any futher than my own backyard. Because if it's not there I never lost it to begin with.
This lesson, of course, accords with the narrative facts that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion each already had the thing he sought. The Scarecrow was already brainy; the Tin Man, full of heart; the Lion, courageous. And Dorothy, in Kansas, already had the place most free of trouble: her home with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. 

"There's no place like home" has certainly stuck. The phrase is a commonplace. And yet, in the movie, what is the initial counter-sentiment? That there is a better place "somewhere over the rainbow." And this does not persist as merely a phrase. This sentiment was given a song, a song used in the opening and closing thematic music, a lovely song that has been counted among the most popular and greatest songs of the 20th Century.

Nobody sings, à la Dorothy, "There's no place like home." There's nothing to sing.

In other words, the delusion that grips Dorothy, that there is a place where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, where skies are blue and dreams really do come true, is given the tremendous, emotional weight that only song can impart. While, on the other hand, the truth she finally discovers is presented in a brief speech — which, while not necessarily platitudinous, is certainly nothing worth humming.

This is a great danger in creating a work: That something tangential — or worse, contrary — to your theme is given a greater prominence, a better presentation, a more memorable form, than the point you are trying to make.

When writing, I have often worried about expending artistry on this or that small scene or second-tier character. I fear my reader will like my villain more than my hero, or find the collapse of my characters more interesting than their restoration. It is a hard thing to make the proper alignment; to best present what should be presented best.

Some contemporary critics of The Brothers Karamazov argued that the devilish points of Ivan Karamazov, as given in "The Grand Inquisitor" section, were more compelling, more substantive, than Alexei's Christ-like response. They argued that Dostoevsky had not really addressed Ivan's points. Dostoevsky replied (perhaps with some exasperation) that the entire novel was the response to Ivan.

One could likewise say that, however compelling may be Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it is countered not merely by some speech at the end of the movie, nor by some brief chant with ruby slippers, but by the movie as a whole. Perhaps. Whether The Wizard of Oz successfully establishes that there's no place like home is a bigger question. I'm not sure it does, beyond somewhat artfully asserting the point. In the end, the writers should have worked a little harder and come up with a compelling tune for There's No Place Like Home.

I know that "there's no place like home" didn't originate with The Wizard of Oz (however much the movie has claimed it). And I know that there is a very old and popular song with that very lyric ("Be it ever so humble..."). And so, yes, the writers, had they written a new song, would have been contending with a standard.

Could they argue they were alluding to that standard, which was possibly more well known in the 1930s, and therefore they didn't need to write their own? I suppose. But the allusion, if any, is weak, and still profoundly overshadowed by Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which resides right there in the work and not in some presumed cultural background.

Concert After the Fish-Fry
Arvo Pärt's Passio 
Sunday, April 9, 2017 10:48 am
I've been listening to Arvo Pärt for quite a while. I'm not sure how I discovered him. He is still alive and still composing. His work, since the 1980s, has been generally focused on the sacred, using chant and polyphony.

I don't know much about music. I know most definitions; I can follow a discussion well enough. But I cannot explain to you the difference between a harmony and a melody — not with understanding. And I cannot distinguish either in a work. I am stupid when it comes to music. Fundamentally I am sub-intellectual. For me, a musical work is either a good noise or it's disposable. 

Whenever I tried listening to Pärt's Passio, it left me cold. It's a setting of St. John's Passion verses. It's about the Passion of Christ and yet, as sound, it caused me no passion.

I shrugged it off. Pärt has always been hot or cold for me. One work is transcendent and always too brief; another is flat and not even worth finishing. So it goes, eh? No oeuvre is consistent; no listener other than fickle.

Well, this past Friday my parish ambitiously presented a complete performance of Passio. It was performed by our usual Sunday chorus and some local singers and musicians, all led by the parish's musical director. I realize that Pärt is not obscure (indeed he has even been appointed to the Pontifical Council for Culture by Benedict XVI) and I don't think my parish is filled with philistines, but the choice of Pärt nonetheless seemed unusual. I was curious how it would play out.

We were given programs and naturally, as the work proceeded, I read along. I had never actually done this with Passio before. These days I tend not to read along with any vocal works, except when I am specifically curious about the words. I seek only noise, after all.

As I read I realized that Passio is not meant to be listened to. Not as music. It is a reading of a text. I can listen to Bach's Johannes-Passion and never know what's going on and still enjoy the glorious noise. If you don't know what is being said in Passio, the musical carriage, the musical adornment, the musical shaping, will sound almost random. It may leave you cold. Its fundamental structure is not a musical form, like sonata; its fundamental structure is spoken Latin. No poem or song is involved.

And so, when you actually attend to the text, the shifts between chorus and soloists and instruments, and between this note and that, make sense. The words are not an excuse for the voice as another instrument; they are the impetus for everything. Only with the words in your eyes is there any music in your ears.

So is Passio even "music"? It's like a musical without any catchy tunes. Whatever specific melodies or harmonies there may be, I'm not tapping my foot or bobbing my head to any of it. Is that just the definition of chant, perhaps? But you can be carried away by Gregorian chant. Passio seems to be something else. It's a text that is not silent.

There must be a name for that.

Superfluous in Heaven
Even Sacred Music Is Mundane
Saturday, February 4, 2017 12:36 am
In the mid '80s, when I was a college boy, I regularly went to the record stores near campus. This was just before CDs and long before MP3s. You wanted music, you flipped through an alphabetized bin and found an LP. Anyhow, one day, while I was browsing for something new, a classical work of some sort started playing on the store stereo. It was beautiful and unfamiliar. I listened for quite a while. I finally asked the clerk what it was. He showed me the sleeve and I went to the proper bin. The LP was in stock. I bought it. 

It was the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius, as performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, recorded in June 1984. I know these details because, even when I eventually got the CD, I got the exact same recording. I am reading the liner notes as I write.

Now, I am profoundly susceptible to music. My reactions are acute. Sometimes I am infatuated only; sometimes I am ceaselessly bound. Sibelius's Third is still beautiful to me. It raises and stirs, thirty years on.

Beauty is not precisely in the eye of the beholder. All beautiful things are imperfect and being imperfect are not perfectly beautiful. Besides, one who beholds is imperfect, too, and cannot apprehend beauty perfectly. It is all piecemeal. So it is not surprising that we disagree on what is beautiful. That said, beauty is not a matter of opinion. We are moved by a beautiful thing because we are sensing Beauty Itself. A truly beautiful thing partakes of God.

That is why a beautiful thing makes life good. Living on Earth is a rotten business. A beautiful thing consoles and compensates. When I listen to Sibelius's Third I am glad I have ears. I am reminded that misery is a privation, not an end. I am glad that I am still breathing.

And then I wonder: Would the Third even matter to me in the afterlife?

Assume I get to Heaven. Assume I am granted the Beatific Vision. Seeing God fully means apprehending Beauty at Its Source. No need for reflections or consolations. Sibelius's Third Symphony is of the Earth and would be superfluous in Heaven.

I can tell myself that, being in Heaven, my understanding would be under grace and I would not even miss the Third, nor think it sad that I don't need or want to listen to it. I would understand that even a great work is unnecessary when there is no misery to counteract. I wouldn't even feel a loss, since loss cannot exist in Heaven.

Even after the Resurrection, when we would all be restored to our bodies and again in some sort of material life, the grace of Heaven would persist. We won't need symphonies nor any example of artifacted beauty. Presumably they wouldn't even attract us since we would have no unsatisfied appetites.

And yet.

Will we stop loving each other because we are immersed in grace? Will we stop enjoying what can be enjoyed, whether it is our family or the sun or the moon or whatever might constitute the consummated universe?

Maybe the Third will be superfluous. Or maybe you can never have too much beauty, and we will listen with an even greater joy than before.

A Bee Contemplates Buzzing
The Definition of High Art
Sunday, January 8, 2006 8:46 pm
Despite having been a writer for decades now and having had the unsurprising and frequent inclination, as a producer of art, to contemplate the nature of art, it was many years until I realized something that I think is very true.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: All works are not substantially equal. However much the academics might want to de-privilege the canon, there remains a qualitative difference between high art and low art. This, to be sure, is not news. If you think I am merely about to scoff at academics who overpraise hip-hop or graffiti, you would be wrong. Such academics, however much they perdure, have been adequately ridiculed already. My question is only this: Given the obvious fact that some art is high and some low, what is it, in the end, that distinguishes high from low? And my answer is this: Depth of information. 

This is not entirely my idea. I heard a man use "information content" to explain, in passing, why concert music is higher than popular music. But I believe "information content" — or, as I prefer to put it, "depth of information" — applies to all art and is, indeed, sufficient to distinguish high from low. Notice I am not saying "distinguish good from bad." "Good" is an aesthetic judgment, valid enough but not enough to make a work high. And "bad" does not mean a work is not high. "Information" applies, obviously, to content, but perhaps not as obviously to form. That is, a work of high art is presented in a form that itself invites contemplation and rational elucidation. A work of high art is elaborate in content and form. Its information is deep.

That may seem to be a truism, but what I am trying to get across is that "deeply informed" is the complete definition of high art. Yes, of course, we would argue about what constitutes "deep." But by defining high art as "deeply informed" we don't become sunk in questions of aesthetics or culture — or origins. Thus even masters can produce low art — art that is well-made, enjoyable, memorable; yet for all that, lacking depth and therefore not high. Just because it's Mozart doesn't mean it's higher than Metallica.

And, as an added bonus, my succinct definition finally makes it clear to me why so much art that is supposedly high has always struck me as anything but. With my definition in hand, one can finally banish the freeloaders from the house of high art. For example, like him or not, value him or not, Pollock is not high art, because there is nothing elaborate or deeply informed about his work. Nothing intrinsic, that is. You can read all you want into Pollock's paint spills; they're still just spills. Deep information cannot be imputed to the work but must subsist in the work for the work to be truly high.

Marriage Isn't a Lark, After All
The Carter Family Gets Incendiary!
Monday, May 30, 2005 6:49 pm
When I was a teenager and I started to read Great Literature, I read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. You know what struck me then more than anything else? That a book written in the 1860s should be about an axe murderer. My miseducation to that point had not prepared me for the idea that past ages might just know a thing or two about horrible, sad, or sordid things — and, more to the point, that past ages might be unafraid to talk about them.

Mankind has been doing the same blasted thing for thousands of years. Yet it is an annoying conceit of this era that, until now, man has been naive about his own circumstances. Because civilization once aspired to better circumstances and once celebrated ideals, it is supposed that civilization was once ignorant of all our shortcomings and squalor. In fact, our civilization has simply despaired of ideals. 

I was watching PBS a week or two ago. Normally I don't care much for PBS. It is, after all, the television station that believes the history of America — of every blessed little thing in America — is fundamentally the history of The Oppression of the Black Man. You can be watching a show about the development of the hot dog and PBS will manage to remind you that in America before the 1960s black people were not even allowed to eat hot dogs! — or some darn thing. PBS insidiously dwells on the bad. Talk about despairing.

Still, when you don't have cable, as I do not, you sometimes have to settle for PBS. Besides, there is some interesting stuff to watch, now and again. Must give PBS its due. Just recently I watched an American Experience special about the Carter Family. I had known nothing about the Carter Family before then. As a TV special it was fair enough; but it did compel me to start streaming some of their music. Boy, it's good. I've even bought a CD.

The Carter Family, back in the late 1920s, more or less founded recorded country music. Most of their work was arrangements of old folk songs, gathered from among the people. Thus many of the songs are probably very old indeed. One I particularly like is Single Girl, Married Girl. I haven't been able to find out how old this one is — I mean, how much older than its recording by the Carters in 1928.
Single girl, single girl, going dressed fine,
Oh she's going dressed fine.

Married girl, married girl, she wears just any kind,
Oh she wears just any kind.

Single girl, single girl, she goes to the store and buys,
Oh she goes to the store and buys.

Married girl, married girl, she rocks the cradle and cries,
Oh she rocks the cradle and cries.

Single girl, single girl, going where she please,
Oh she's going where she please.

Married girl, married girl, a baby on her knees,
Oh a baby on her knees.
The contrast between the single and married girls is bluntly made. Sure, it's a cynical song; but it works. It was the Carter Family's first big hit.

Now, as the PBS special plays this song in the backgound, the following luminaries speak.
Barry Mazor: That was pretty potent stuff then as it is now for a woman from the city let alone from the country to be singing about. "By the way, this marriage thing is no bed of roses," this was pretty incendiary stuff.

Gillian Welch: As a single woman singing it, it always seemed like a little bit of a taunt, you know a compassionate taunt, you know to be flaunting your freedom.

Mary Bufwack: Sarah didn't want to go out and sing songs. Sarah didn't want to go down and record music, but it brought money into the family coffers and that was what, was her obligation was to do.
Oh, please. By the way, this marriage thing is no bed of roses. Yeah, Barry. No one until then had even an inkling about the difficulty of marriage. Why, goodness, had people only realized how hard marriage could be, they might have — I dunno — written a folk song about it, or something. They might, indeed, have responded enthusiastically to a popular recording of such a folk song. Or something. Incendiary? Hardly. It was confirmational. The sort of thing that makes you smile wryly or nod your head sadly. Did Single Girl, Married Girl bring about some sort of revolution? Ah, yes: the great Marriage Implosion of 1928... Barry only wishes it had. Barry and his ilk relish the demolishing of ideals — and a happy marriage is the preeminent ideal.

Gillian Welch is welcome to her spin on Single Girl — that is, she may well regard it, when she sings it, as a taunt of the single girl against the married. Frankly, though, I think it is more effective and likely as a lament of the married girl. Even then, I don't think it somehow demonstrates that being single is superior to being married. A married girl who longs to dress well, go to the store and buy, and go wherever she pleases, and who thinks of her marriage as drab clothes, drudgery, and burdensome babies, is simply trapped in adolescence. When Mary Bufwack clucks about how poor Sarah Carter simply felt obligated to record these songs, she implies that marriage is without obligation; that Sarah, by fulfilling her obligations, is pitiable rather than noble. I suppose Sarah should have been dressing fine and going where she pleased — especially shopping — instead of caring for her impoverished family.

Oh, foul marriage, that compels women to grow up and work hard for their children!

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