Friday, October 31, 2014

A Halloween story, passed down through the generations

This was told to me by my grandmother, who heard it from her grandmother, who heard it from her grandmother, to whom it happened.

It was when she was a lass living in Dumbarton near the kirk on the last street next to the water. It was Halloween and time for guisin so she went out with a teacup on her head calling herself the French queen. She met an old woman on the street who, greeting her as once-dead queen to live once-more, handed her a chess king and told her to look at the water.

Out on the water were great large ships o' war flying the flag of France, but there came from them not a sound other than the wind. The crone said it was Bonaparte, arrived to raise the Highlands and marry his sister to a Stuart; and that all remained to happen was for the devil to come sanctify the event, which would happen if the guisin lassie gave away the teacup crown to the crone.

The ancestor lass was all ready to hand over the teacup when there was music. Two guisers came marching down the street, one a hoboy and the other a jingling johnny contraption, and the song was Devil in the Kitchen.

Then came shooting out of the kirk a massive red carriage, which went lumbering up and around the street, clattering and clanking and making a great noise that was joined by booming from the ships o'war. The street filled with pikemen and horsemen, and the massive red carriage played them all like skittles amid the noise.

Then as soon as it began it was all gone and quiet, all except the jingling johnnyer, who took the lass aside and said that she had done right by not giving the teacup crown to the crone; that it was just as he had dreamed it; so that now none of it would ever happen; that he would himself never even know of it; and that all she should remember was his name, which name was Jonathan Strange; even though the actual Jonathan Strange himself was asleep and dreaming in a bed far away, employed unbeknownst by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair to stifle the military plans of Bonaparte by preventing the best ideas from occurring to him.

My grandmother and her grandmother before and her grandmother before remembered more than just his name and said it was thanks to this that Bonaparte never invaded Britain.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Red, Whitewash, and Black

I didn't fly a flag this last Memorial Day because I hadn't gotten around to replacing the old one, which had to be honorably discharged after flying away from the pole last November. The flag was attached to the pole with couple of thin plastic loops. Time and wind, apparently, had weakened them to the point that my flag flew free. Flag-freedom is inconsistent with the whole point of flags.

Anyway, I spent the day under a light cloud of citizen-guilt for not showing my pride. Entirely self-induced (I don't fly the flag on holidays to prove something to the neighborhood), I missed the the little ceremony of putting it out--the mute interrogation of its symbolism and the random associations it produces.

It wasn't a comfortable Memorial Day for national symbolism, however: I spent it reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's article about reparations in The Atlantic.

Reading about America's shameful history of racial prejudice, my mind kept hitting back at that pop patriotic slogan "Freedom Isn't Free" with such snide rejoinders as, "Yeah, it also requires slavery and theft." Coates's article had nothing to do with native Americans, but it didn't take much for the moral arithmetic of nation-building to amend the formula.

Even sadder, I kept thinking how all those we seek to remember on Memorial Day had died in vain because we the living couldn't figure out a way to live up to the ideals the flag represents.

And the flag, too, in and of itself.  I found myself going even further than Coates, in a way. He at one point in the article writes that "reparations would mean the end of yelling 'patriotism' while waving a Confederate flag." My reaction was: wrong flag, Mr. Coates. Most of what you write about - slavery up until the Civil War, Jim Crow, redlining - happened under the star-spangled banner. Maybe we shouldn't be yelling "patriotism" while waving the American flag until we face the reality that the effects of its long history of civic abuse thrive in ways that are injurious to our future as a nation.

It is, I realize, the height of folly for me to believe that there is any hope for any attempt at a moral reckoning, so the fantasy that the owners of Monticello would tithe the proceeds of their ill-gotten plantation tourist dollars into a fund for minority business incubation will always remain such. Too many people will point to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and say "mission accomplished" or "heckuva job, Brown vs. Board of Ed."

To anyone who thinks I've somehow joined the ranks of the "Blame America First" crowd (whoever they are), you're wrong. My shame and disappointment come from the fact that I'm practically religious about the nature of Americanism, its ideals, and its promises.

Every religion claims that its tenets are true, yet no religion can verify those truths except on the basis of faith and belief. My American religion believes that every American citizen is bound to every other American citizen by our common citizenship. The U.S. Constitution is our Torah; the Declaration of Independence is our Sermon on the Mount; our history provides our Chronicles and Epistles; our Constitutional history provides our Talmud.

If doubts have begun to bedevil me to the point that they drown out the apologists with their evidence of progress, some of it comes from my own immersion in American scripture:
  • An obvious one: the Constitutional three-fifths clause that, for the purposes of tax assessment, distinguishes between "free persons" and "other persons." Slavery was euphemized into the Constitution. Four score and some-odd years and hundreds of thousands of slave-and soldier-deaths later, it was removed. But the taint was not. It's the kind of taint that turns the lofty ideals of Jefferson into the empty rhetoric of a political windbag.
  • Federalist Papers #51: James Madison theorized that the Constitutional structure, through its deft balancing of powers and by its ability to act on individual citizens, would protect the rights of minorities in the states. Except the ones who had no rights to start with and who've had to fight every step of the way to get them in the first place and to keep fighting just to hold on to them.
But, believe it or no, it gets worse. I read Coates at the same time as I was reading a slim volume by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah called Lines of Descent: W.E.B. DuBois and the Emergence of Identity. DuBois was one of the giants of Africa-America. A cofounder of the NAACP, he spoke out loudly on the subject of American racial discrimination when it was at its worst. The book details DuBois's education, particularly his years at the University of Berlin, at that time the pre-eminent institution of advanced historical and social thought, and as such provides a sort of intellectual history of DuBois's lifelong efforts to nail down the concept of race. More vividly, Appiah describes race identity for DuBois as "the angel he wrestled with his entire life."

DuBois understood early on that race had no validity as a physical construct, but he was powerfully drawn to the possibility of a Negro race as a cultural construct that would be found to be a positive force in human affairs. For example, he found in Negro spirituals an expression of Herderian Volksgeist, a striving of a corporate body toward a unique formulation of the human experience. 

Ultimately, however, the positive aspect of DuBois's definitional project foundered, even if DuBois himself "never left the world of idealistic ethical nationalism," according to Appiah. The project was sunk to the level of the white supremacist. Asked what it is that makes someone a black man, DuBois's most enduring answer, the one that seems to have had most resonance with him, was "the black man is a person who must ride 'Jim Crow' in Georgia."

Or, he might have added, suffered whatever such "daily cruelties" and "public insults" of racism that attended his childhood in Massachusetts. Because they were certainly there. It was only in Germany that DuBois was able to live life beyond the artificial distinction of race. "In the days of my Sturm und Drang," he wrote, "this was the land where I first met white folk who treated me as a human being." And, in turn, the Negro came to see white folks beyond the prism of race: "I met men and women as I had never met them before. Slowly they became, not white folks but folks.”

But no matter his kaiserlich handlebar mustache or his marriage proposal from the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, DuBois could not hold on to the sense that all people were just "folks." He - like the returning black American soldiers from every overseas conflict - had to return to a country where folks weren't just folks. They were white folks or black folks. And it made a difference.

It made a difference to DuBois by galvanizing his identity as "a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia." It gave him a cause and a struggle. He recognized that its source was tainted: “The race pride of Negroes is not an antidote to the race pride of white people; it is simply the other side of a hateful thing.” But there was no way he could turn his face on the overwhelming injustice and hypocrisy of the phenomenon: “If in the hey-day of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal another, drag them helpless across the water, enslave them, debauch them, and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earth—if the consummation of such a crime be possible in the 20th century, then our civilization is vain and the republic is a mockery and a farce.”

Can we say we are past all of that, finally, thanks to the civil rights movement? Are we at the point sought by DuBois, where he could be, as he wrote, "both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face”? Are we past the experience of the spiritual--the unique formulation that branded an entire people with the sense that only death would bring release from unyielding oppression--because it has faded in the sunlight of a here and now Promised Land?

I don't believe we are, partly because the healthiest, most robust plant in the conservatory of American culture is the racial one. It is watered and fertilized on all sides. Look at Barack Obama--black or white? White mother, right? So he's definitely white. What do you mean, he's black? Whatever happened to the mother tongue? Matrilineal identity is a strong, binding practice in many cultures; what do you mean, it's not available? Well, it just isn't: it's not available to an American whose skin is the same color as a slave's. The American mind is still riding Jim Crow in Georgia.

Not that the fruit of the racial plant is necessarily poisonous. Look, for example, at the development of the blues as an outsider phenomenon, as a way for a downtrodden, black minstrel to live a life free from The Man.

But nobody bargained on the overwhelming influence of the blues. Nobody figured that white boys like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley would sing 'em. Think how delicious it must be - the poison going down - that The Southern Man has made blues music part and parcel of his own identification as he follows his Rebellious course, imagining that his treason is patriotism, toward the destruction of a civic project that he can only identify as Yankee, even though its champions were mostly Virginians. Join him to ghetto gangsterism in all its misogynist, steroid, blinging, FUCK Y'ALL, 1-in-3-imprisoned-black-baby-boy rage, and we get the culture we deserve: the consummation of the union of hatreds in the big revival tent of the Whisky Rebellion, where Original Sin isn't just heritable, it's your birthday suit, and they ain't no changing it.

People who think the problem of reparations is a problem of who gets paid don't understand that reparations isn't about money. It's about repair. It's about fixing what has been broken from the very beginning.

Nor is it about amending the Constitution. The Constitution, through the process of ongoing juridical interpretation, is continuously morphing, even if, technically, the changes don't qualify as amendments. The changes surely have meaning, though, and they sure have effect. It isn't possible to think of a single "constitutional" issue and not realize that.

What the Constitution cannot do is to instill within us a sense of what it means to be a citizen. For example, it is obvious that the current argument about the Second Amendment rests, on both sides, on the individualistic side of the equation--on the right of the individual to own a firearm. What it entirely ignores is the civic aspect of the Second Amendment, which states rather baldly that a militia is essential to freedom. And yet where is the militia today? Where is the civic component of the Second Amendment? It does not exist.

So the project of reparations is a project of identity. It is a project to enable the notion of citizenship to form the core of one's American identity. It is as much a project of internal improvements as anything Alexander Hamilton or Henry Clay or Dwight Eisenhower ever imagined--and I use those names advisedly to show that something like this is as much a Republican thing as a Democratic thing. It is as much a technical endeavor as the space program or the Strategic Defense Initiative, and it will pay way more dividends.

Think of it as a huge flag project. I don't worship the flag per se. I revere it for what I believe it means. I identify myself with those meanings. I am one thread in the flag.

The thing about being a thread in a flag is that no one can be forced to be part of it. You have to choose to be part of it. Now what if the fact of the American flag today is that large numbers of people choose not to be part of it? The weave is coming apart; it's fraying; it's full of holes. It looks like the flag could use some …

I think I heard you say "repair." And why not? In the whole time it's been there, it's never been done.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Let's Talk about (Recorder) Love, part 2

Nested within the week leading up to the performance of Noye’s Fludde, unforeseen by fortune cookie or horoscope or Nostradamus, was a massively random second recorder event also involving a ship.

First of all, really, I don’t do that much recorder playing. And secondly, I never ever play recorder about ships. So when it happens twice in the space of seven days, you’d better believe I’m either the Most Interesting Man in the World, or I’m God, resting.

Anyway, the second event—which, temporally, was the first event (nesting! nesting!)—was this: I performed on the soprano recorder, epically, the epic 8-bar pennywhistle solo from the epic Celine Dion song My Heart Must Go On from the soundtrack of the epic movie Titanic. This was done in an epic concert by an epic middle school choir conducted by my epic wife.

But what really made it all seem like an epic voyage to the epicenter of the earth is that I was in the middle of a book written by a music critic, Carl Wilson, about his efforts to come to terms with Celine Dion; or more accurately, to come to terms with the fact that, while he can’t stand her music, millions of people around the world adore it. So, I was getting to play the epic music at the same time as I was reading about an epic effort to not hate it that, along the way, said some things that led me to ponder why Titanic is so epic and (nesting! nesting!) Noye’s Fludde is so not.

Odysseus, do you hear sirens? What? They’re singing Nearer My God to Thee? My God! (resting! resting!)

Given all this epicness—which I’d love to spice up if only I had an ├ępicerie—I must first admit that using the soprano recorder for the pennywhistle was a massively uncool thing to do. Also, “massively” is the adverb of choice for qualifying descriptors connected with such epicity.

But, about the uncoolness. Carl Wilson believes in cool, or, rather in the power of cool. In his book Let’s Talk about Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, Wilson has this to say: “In early 21st century terms, for most people under fifty, distinction boils down to cool.[Wilson’s italics] Cool confers status—symbolic power. It incorporates both cultural capital and social capital, and it’s a clear potential route to economic capital. Corporations and culture-makers pursue it as much as individuals do. … As much as we avow otherwise, few of us are truly indifferent to cool, not a little anxious about whether we have enough, and Bourdieu’s theory may illustrate why that’s not merely shallow: being uncool has material consequences. Sexual opportunity, career advancement and respect, even elementary security can ride on it. To ignore cool may mean risking downward mobility at a time when many people are falling out of the middle class.”

Bourdieu is Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist whose ideas of the derivation and dependence of taste upon social position are what’s left after Wilson boils down a brew of argumentation about aesthetics that also includes Kant and Hume as ingredients until they get vaporized. Gotta boil down to something.

If it seems like I’m boiling this down to dismissiveness (in massively epic fashion), it’s a shame, because I really did enjoy the book. I read it twice, and I re-read books as much as I play recorder about ships. I will give it four stars on Goodreads. Wilson’s dogged pursuit of “an experiment in taste, in stepping deliberately outside one’s own aesthetics” in order to answer the question “What is the real substance of the dislike I … have for Celine Dion” is indeed exemplary. The world could use more such exercises in empathy.

But, “distinction boils down to cool”? I can only register that with a wince.

Regardless of what people think about Dion, when it comes to “her” music, she is just the voice. She does not write the lyrics or the music. She doesn’t do the arrangements. So—making distinctions here, which I know is probably a different sense of “distinction” than the one Wilson uses, but it is the original, essential one—there are many aspects of a song like My Heart Will Go On that people may or may not like, and when it comes to the first 8-bar instrumental introduction, which sets the tone for the rest of the song, to use a recorder instead of a pennywhistle is massively uncool.

If you think like Wilson, you might assume I mean that the soprano recorder—due no doubt to its association with classrooms full of children using it to butcher Hot Cross Buns with such fervidness that John Wayne Gacy starts to look like Francis of Assisi—possesses some kind of downward mobility unpossessed by the pennywhistle, and that, as a result of using it, I’m going to fall out of the middle class. Outraged purists of epic pennywhistle solos, players of Cards Against Humanity, blue-faced Wallaceites, Celtomanes, fans of the Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys: all will rise up and prevent me from pursuing a career as a performer at epic middle school choir concerts, and I will be left to play for pennies on interstate off-ramps.

[A class of recorders in a gym. My ears bleed at the very idea.]

While I’m prepared to face that (more in a bit), that isn’t what I meant. I meant it is musically uncool because, well, it boils down to fingering.

It's not easy to explain if you're not familiar with how woodwind instruments work, but it's sort of like the difference between a fitted wrench and an adjustable one: the fitted wrench only works on one size of nut, but it works perfectly on that nut. The adjustable wrench, on the other hand, can be made to work on all sizes of nuts, but imperfectly so (slipping, etc.).

In musical terms, while both instruments are basically just whistles on a tube perforated with holes, an F pennywhistle matches the song key with a simple fingering pattern well suited to accomplish the slides and finger vibrato that a truly distinctive (meaning excellent) rendering of the music demands. The soprano recorder, on the other hand, can play the notes, but has to use harder, more awkward finger patterns and combinations to do so. These so-called "forked" fingerings can't provide as many of the characteristic stylings, so it doesn't sound quite the same.

It meant I'd basically be faking it. And fake it I did. Epically, of course.

But what you must know—and here’s the “more in a bit,” all you Cropdick Celtomanes—I tried to buy an F pennywhistle the weekend before the concert, but the local music store only had the usual selection of D’s, which works for 95% of Celtic music, so why stock an F? For all those people who make a living playing the first 8 bars of My Heart Will Go On with middle school choirs?

So, now you know: if I fall out of the middle class as a result of faking an epic pennywhistle solo on the soprano recorder, I fall advisedly.

It all boils down to massive ├ępiceries.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Let's Talk about (Recorder) Love, part 1

I peaked last Sunday morning, 18 May, 2014. My whole life, in one respect, led up to that day’s hour between 11 a.m. and noon.

It wasn’t peaking at the same level that getting married is, or having children is, or having children get married is. Those are the Himalayas of life geography, to me anyway.

No, this was a lesser peak, but still a significant one. Let’s just call it my Ararat, for an obvious reason: Last Sunday I peaked as a recorder player by performing the solo treble (alto) part in my church’s production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde.

Britten composed his setting of the Noah story designedly to accommodate the varied abilities of amateur and professional musicians. Thus, the treble recorder part calls for a solo player and ripieno players. Ripieno recorders? I knew the term from its association with violin family members in the Baroque concerto grosso, which alternates between sections of the whole orchestra playing together—the ripieno passages—and sections when just the soloists play. As one who’s been in a roomful of people learning to play recorder at the same time, I had to question the wisdom of this particular aspect of Britten’s orchestration.

Happily for the musical quality of the production (I like to think), there were no ripieno treble recorders. It was just myself along with two descant (soprano) recorders, both played tastefully and in tune by my wife and one of my daughters. Three is a good number of recorders. More than that, and the warbling starts to move along the timbrometer in the direction of shrieking.

Three is an even better number of recorders if it’s two parents and an offspring. It was the second time for me—so that I now realize with no small bemusement that maybe the peaking was indeed of an Himalayan scale.

I’ve been a recorder player since I was a child. My parents played recorder. My mother taught me to play; my father set a rigorous performance standard. Occasionally we performed as a trio—The Barry Consort—in churches or at the occasional downtown arts festival in Chattanooga.

I still have the books we played from. Most of the music consists of keyboard or string pieces transcribed—in a peculiar mid-20th century variation of Tin Pan Alley—by arrangers who seem to have lived off the ravenous hunger for something, anything for recorder demanded by participants in the great recorder revival (the recorder having gone extinct in the 19th century).

The picture above show the cover of an exceptional case: a recorder trio actually composed for recorders in the early 1700's. My mother's handwriting shows that its 5 movements--minus the Overture, which her handwriting says to "skip"--took 10 minutes to perform. (Notice the stamps: House of Music on 732 Cherry St., Chattanooga--back then music stores had music, meaning sheet music; and my father's handmade recorder name stamp.)

At less than 2 minutes per, our selections were generally very short—often, in the case of the up-tempo ones, less than a minute. These tunes were originally written to be danced to, and as such, originally, would have been repeated 3 or 4 times, then followed by other tunes, similarly repeated, to form a long enough set to make the dancers require a break to refresh themselves with perry, flip, or shrub.

Here's the first page from a two-page piece from the Faber book shown above. I just timed a "performance" of the whole thing in my head, with repeats as marked. It took 44 seconds.

These pieces The Barry Consort played one time through. There was no dancing to recorder music at downtown arts festivals in Chattanooga. This meant my father did a lot of talking to pad the program, which was fine, really, because nobody knew what continent recorders came from or what they ate or why anybody would want to consort with them. With that level of not knowing, everyone seemed okay with letting my father be the ranger in a musical Jurassic Park.

Among the first things you learn about these creatures is that there are two sets of fingerings, which go by the names of the pitches that sound when you cover all the holes: C and F. At first I played the C-fingered instruments, the soprano and tenor. In the trios played by The Barry Consort the soprano generally had the prominent part—the “lead” or the “melody” or whatever label best says “here be flash.” Naturally that was the part I wanted to play, but I would’ve had to assassinate my father to have it, so I settled for the backup quarterback role: I could scrimmage by myself with the soprano part, but in performance I played tenor. Functioning musically as the bass voice of the ensemble, it was the largest of the three instruments, and it was being played by the smallest person in the trio. Thus, quite early on, I became aware of the many ways that size does and does not matter.

In The Barry Consort my mother played the F-fingered alto recorder, which, sounding the inner voice, is analogous to the viola in a string ensemble. I think it was the Bohemian composer Dvorak who said the viola is the most important instrument in the orchestra. The viola is also the butt of most instrument jokes. It must’ve been these I was channeling in my musically preconscious recorder trio days: alto equals viola does not equal flash.

Except, as I was soon to learn, alto does not necessarily equal viola. In Baroque music, it turns out, alto equals rock star. When J. S. Bach writes a part for “flauto,” he doesn’t mean flute like we think of flute. He’s using the term as shorthand for “flauto dolce,” which was Baroque music’s term for the alto recorder, one of its pre-eminent solo voices. I hadn’t ever been a real lover of Baroque music until I went to college and began playing Bach on the oboe. I was hooked. So badly did I want to learn F fingering and play Bach’s Brandenburg flauto parts that I dreamed myself into it: I had a dream that mapped out the alto’s F-fingering for me. I’d gone to bed unable to read alto recorder music; when I woke up the ability was there.

I learned those Brandenburg parts; I learned a whole book of alto recorder parts from the Bach cantatas; I never performed them, but I scrimmaged them. I coulda been a contenda.

(The music above is one of my favorites: the recorder part to the aria Bestelle dein Haus from Cantata 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit.)

I did go on to work out a folk-rock improvisational style on the recorder that my friend Lawson Garrett let me use in some of his songs.

But at the age of 60, while I didn’t think about it much, I would’ve told anyone that my recorder glory days had happened back when I was playing tenor with The Barry Consort in a big tent out in front of the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga and questioning the appeal of 50-second one-off tunes.

When the church music director asked me a couple of months ago if I knew any recorder players who’d help with a performance of Noye’s Fludde, I told him I’d try to find some (I know a few musicians). I wasn’t eager to play—I had the idea that Britten’s use of recorders would be infantile, along the lines of Carl Orff. Nothing against Carl Orff at all. I just didn’t want to tootle rudiments. While I was procrastinating on finding any other recorder players, the music director got the music to me.

Holy spit.

This wasn’t Orff. This was a real alto recorder part. It ran the gamut from the lowest notes to the highest ones. It had difficult keys. It had some demanding passage-work. It had … flutter tonguing. Flutter tonguing! That’s when you roll your r’s while blowing. I could do it, but I’d never ever performed a flutter tongue. More than a part, the alto recorder had a role: as the voice of the dove in the Noah story, it’s the recorder that delivers the musical news of dry land to the passengers of the ark.

Even so, I can’t say I jumped at the opportunity. Could a church choir pull this off? There would be one rehearsal of the entire production. Just one?  Just one rehearsal for a Britten opera? Those are long odds. Even if the story has the ark making it through the flood unscathed, there was no guarantee that we would. I practiced my part and hoped for the best.

As it happened, the choir’s core soloists—vocal majors at ETSU, along with a couple of others in their cohort—carried the main parts with aplomb, and, with them leading the way, Britten’s crafted involvement of choir, children,  instruments, and a hymn-singing congregation worked its magic.

While somewhere in the orchestra, helping the ark to Ararat, a recorder player wound up high and dry on a peak of his own.