Friday roundup

This week I pointed towards an interesting conversation about “The Violence of Forgetting” in the New York Times, then spent a few hours listening to Bach.

To close the week I draw your attention to a curious little web site called TV-Signoffs.com. Younger readers probably don’t remember this, but back in the day, our television sets weren’t bursting with programming over 200 channels, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. After the late show, local channels used to call it a day, closing down at about 1.00am to get a good night’s sleep. TV-Signoffs.com is a little testament to that era, featuring archival clips of the way that stations across America used to sign off for a little rest.

There was little else to do afterwards but go to bed. This probably had some kind of effect on our unconsciousness; instead of slumbering, we’re now semi-aware that the multichannel chaos goes on even when we’re asleep, and perhaps we fear that somehow, as we rest, we’re missing something. (And that’s only the television set. The internet’s on 24/7 as well.) I can’t imagine that this doesn’t have some kind of effect on our psyche, and that it has a cost. What I wonder about is whether it has any real benefit.

Below is a sample of the way WABC used to wave goodnight in 1983. It starts with a title card announcing the end of their Saturday Night Movie; a few public service announcements; a sermonette; and finally a little announcement to fulfill FCC requirements at the time, then the national anthem. It’s not very unlike most TV signoffs at the time. There’s more at TV-Signoffs.com, including this little gem from when HBO was only a toddler. So we end our broadcasting week ourselves.

225 minutes

The wife is away and the kids went to bed at about 9.00, so I spent some part of this evening listening to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, in the 1962 recording conducted by Otto Klemperer. (And I’ll bet this is the only blog in the world in which you’ll find an opening sentence like that today.) Not all of it, I’m afraid; only the first 75 minutes or so. The entire recording lasts for nearly four hours, and I doubt that I or anybody else for that matter has the time to listen to it in its entirety in one sitting, with the exception of those who deliberately carve out an evening to hear it live. Still, even its first third was powerful enough. Listening to it without distraction, even in your own home, leads you into a deep enough contemplation and meditation that is far too rare in my own experience. And I choose my words carefully here — “far too rare” is, in reality, only once every few years. The fragmentation of contemporary musical experience, apart from the sublimity of Bach’s Passions, means that our music comes to us in three- or four-minute slices, far from the 225 minutes of a Bach Passion. What’s more, the Passions don’t even have the narrative drive of an opera. We know how they end, let alone how they begin. Wagner’s Ring has the conflict and characters of the Nibelungenlied, a grand tale of passion stretching over many, many years, and Wagner does with the myth what he will. Bach was rather more constrained with the gospels.

For some reason, this brought to my mind my father, who for the last twenty years of his life lived more or less by himself. His companion, and it was an important one, was the classical music station in Philadelphia WFLN. (Don’t go looking for it; it ceased operations in 1985.) In the 1970s and 1980s, he would sit by himself, quietly smoking and drinking in his sitting room, listening to the chamber music, symphonies, operas, and most likely the Bach Passions every evening for several hours. He listened to them not on a computer or a DVD player, but a radio (I tried myself to find some classical music on the radio tonight, only to find that WQXR has gone all web). He may also have read a book or magazine, and in the spring and summer watched a baseball game or two on television, but even after the games were over, far into the night, he listened to WFLN and thought — about what I can’t say. Maybe philosophy; maybe about his own life; maybe about other things. But listening to the St. Matthew’s Passion tonight myself, alone in my living room, my daughters asleep nearby, drinking a few glasses of Gruner Veltliner, I possibly experienced the same thing, and about what I thought I would find it hard to say. Even “thought” is the wrong word. Perhaps, and only perhaps, it was a few hours in which the music brought me closer to my Self, whatever that is, however that may be defined.

Solitude, quiet, and time unbroken by interruption, whether it’s by glancing nervously every few minutes at an iPhone or by something else: these are the dearest and rarest things, not least because so poorly valued. (And ironically they’re the costliest: Find a quiet bar where you can while away a few hours with a few quiet drinks by yourself, or even a place where you can sit quietly without disturbance in New York. You’ll pay for it.) These are the things that the spirit requires. But of what value is the spirit today? One of the ways in which art teaches us the value of the sublime is through mere duration — not noise or variety necessarily, but through listening or seeing quietly over a long period of time. It carves out a large piece of our lives. I know of few King Lears that last less than three hours, and I’ve already mentioned the Passions of Bach. Contemporary equivalents might include the music of Morton Feldman. They don’t benefit from smartphones buzzing with calls or incoming emails that must be dealt with instantly, or constant looks at one’s watch. Quite the opposite. If you listen to the St. Matthew’s Passion on your computer, you’ll find yourself clicking away to Outlook or another email program, or Facebook, or Twitter, I guarantee it. The music suffers. The spirit has its demands on our attention, and as our attention is distended across distractions, it suffers too.

And I will say this: If everyone in the world listened to St. Matthew’s Passion, there’d be a lot less bullshit and violence in the world, at least for those few hours. Which is, as they say, a net gain.

I mentioned solitude briefly above, but I must contradict myself here, for a live performance of St. Matthew’s Passion is (most likely; I’ve never experienced it myself) an example of individual contemplation within the intentional community of those who choose to attend the performance. In that sense, it is like church. I’ve also been attending services at Grace Church over the past six months or so, and perhaps its greatest message to me has been the necessity of pursuing spiritual life through community. There is a moment during the service in which those in the congregation turn to each other, friends or strangers, to shake hands, to acknowledge fellow churchgoers. It draws the individual from himself to the truth that there are others around him, and that there’s no separation from them; and especially at Grace Church, I’ve found, those others are of far different backgrounds than oneself. For the ceremony, however, we are united, one in spirit, whether white or of color, gay or straight, rich or poor, and however our opinions may differ. (Even atheists may be welcome. As the Yes, Prime Minister series once waggishly put it, they’re called “Modernists” in the contemporary Anglican Communion.)

The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist takes only about an hour — about a quarter of time a performance of St. Matthew’s Passion. Even so, it’s an hour that one must make plans for, for the solitude and quiet the sacrament demands. It is nearly 1.00 in the morning now, but I may just spend another hour or so with the next CD of the Passion. One must make the time, wherever one finds it.

The violence of forgetting

From “The Violence of Forgetting,” a dialogue with Henry A. Giroux and Brad Evans at yesterday’s edition of the New York Times series “The Stone”:

What I have called the violence of organized forgetting signals how contemporary politics are those in which emotion triumphs over reason, and spectacle over truth, thereby erasing history by producing an endless flow of fragmented and disingenuous knowledge. At a time in which figures like Donald Trump are able to gain a platform by promoting values of “greatness” that serve to cleanse the memory of social and political progress achieved in the name of equality and basic human decency, history and thought itself are under attack.

Once ignorance is weaponized, violence seems to be a tragic inevitability. The mass shooting in Orlando is yet another example of an emerging global political and cultural climate of violence fed by hate and mass hysteria. Such violence legitimates not only a kind of inflammatory rhetoric and ideological fundamentalism that views violence as the only solution to addressing social issues, it also provokes further irrational acts of violence against others. Spurred on by a complete disrespect for those who affirm different ways of living, this massacre points to a growing climate of hate and bigotry that is unapologetic in its political nihilism.

It would be easy to dismiss such an act as another senseless example of radical Islamic terrorism. That is too easy. Another set of questions needs to be asked. What are the deeper political, educational, and social conditions that allow a climate of hate, racism, and bigotry to become the dominant discourse of a society or worldview? What role do politicians with their racist and aggressive discourses play in the emerging landscape’s violence? How can we use education, among other resources, to prevent politics from being transformed into a pathology? And how might we counter these tragic and terrifying conditions without retreating into security or military mindsets?

Giroux also discusses the role of universities and the threats to free speech on campus as contributing to the current malaise. The full dialogue can be found here. Thanks to Gaby Schafer for bringing it to my attention.

Sick puppy

Boston's Jordan Hall.
Boston’s Jordan Hall.

Marilyn Nonken is the featured guest artist at this year’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (best known by its acronym SICPP, or “Sick Puppy”) in Boston. On Wednesday night at 8.00pm she’ll be performing at Jordan Hall; on the program are works by Tristan Murail, Dominique Troncin, Hugues Dufourt, and two etudes by David Rakowski (“Solid Goldie” and “Billie Sizzle,” which Mr. Rakowski was kind enough to write for our daughters). The concert is free, and more information is available here.

Marilyn will close out her season this Friday evening with a free, casual concert in the lobby of the Sofitel New York, 45 West 44th Street. The concert begins at 6.00pm; she’ll be performing Murail’s “Les Travaux et les Jours.” More information here (and though free, reservations are encouraged); the performance is a part of Fête de la Musique, presented by Sofitel in conjunction with the French-American Piano Society and Steinway & Sons. Drop by and join us for a glass of champagne in the spectral afterglow!

Friday roundup

jo-cox-8

On Tuesday I offered a few meditations on a recent tragedy we’ve all heard too much about; on Wednesday I tipped my hat to the BBC World News channel; and yesterday I nodded to this year’s Bloomsday.

It’s been a rough week. Above is a photograph of Jo Cox, a young Labour member of the UK Parliament who yesterday was murdered outside her constituency office, cutting short a promising career and much else besides. Most intimately, Ms. Cox leaves a husband and two young children. She was gunned down and stabbed apparently doing the grunt work of politics — meeting with members of her local community, listening to their complaints, and trying to help. On a national level, she was a defender of the rights and dignity of the migrant populations who are spreading across the UK, along with the rest of Europe. “Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration,” she said in her first “maiden” speech in the House of Commons last year, “be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

The BBC reports that “One eyewitness … heard her attacker shout ‘put Britain first’ at least twice beforehand.” Though so far unconfirmed by police reports, this would if true make Ms. Cox only the latest casualty of the violently divisive culture in which we now find ourselves. (If false, needless to say, it is just as great a loss.) Even if she is the victim of a random, arbitrary act of violence, the circumstances of her death, occurring as she was trying in her own modest way to improve the situation of those whom she represented in Parliament, render it doubly tragic.

As I suggested on Tuesday, the extreme rhetoric of violence in our culture inevitably will lead from word to act — words leading to sticks and stones and bullets. If, as seems likely, the attack on Ms. Cox was sparked by a deadly convergence of madness and political extremism, then one can draw at least one parallel between what happened in Birstall yesterday and what happened in Orlando last Sunday. In the Spectator yesterday, Alex Massie said it well:

But we know that even lone lunatics don’t live in a bubble. They are influenced by outside events. That’s why, when there is an act of Islamist terrorism, we quite rightly want to know if it was, implicitly or explicitly, encouraged by other actors. We do not believe – at least we should not – in collective guilt or punishment but we do want to know, with reason, whether an individual assassin was inspired by ideology or religion or hate-speech or any of a hundred other possible motivating factors. We do not hold all muslims accountable for the violence carried out in the name of their prophet but nor can we avoid the ugly, unpalatable, truth that, as far as the perpetrator is concerned, he (it is almost always he) is acting in the service of his view of his religion. He has a cause, no matter how warped it may be. And so we ask who influenced him? We ask, how did it come to this? …

Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.

Mr. Massie is talking about Brexit, but in that last paragraph there is enough to remind you of a current US Presidential candidate as well — and maybe even a Democratic demagogue who’s been much in the news lately. I have no particular opinion on the Brexit issue; much as I am something of an Anglophile, I’m too far away to offer an opinion except that, in my experience, union is always preferable to division. I was in fact in a country that divided while I was there — when Czechoslovakia broke up in 1993 I was living only a few miles from the border between Moravia and Slovakia — and even though that went off without the loss of a single life or a single bullet fired, nobody on either side was particularly happy about it in the end.

So when I read the news this week, I am dourly confirmed in my belief in the massive destructiveness of self-righteous extremism, in word or deed, whether its mouthpieces are individuals or nations, whether from the left or the right end of the spectrum. I have seen far too many photographs of smiling individuals with guns or on top of tanks, eyes alight with confidence in their own mission. They frankly make me sick. I’m disgusted. They should know better — in fact, I think they do know better, but prefer to listen to their darker emotions than reason, it being so much easier that way. When I read the anger and rage of those who feel that they themselves are the sole possessors of the “truth,” when this “truth” is founded on fear, envy, and paranoia, when they have nothing but dismissive insult for those who disagree with them, I think of Ms. Cox’s husband and children and the families of those who died and were wounded in Orlando.

The slide from civilisation to barbarism is shorter than we might like to imagine,” the Guardian wrote in its leader on Ms. Cox’s death. “Every violent crime taints the ideal of an orderly society, but when that crime is committed against the people who are peacefully selected to write the rules, then the affront is that much more profound.” Unfortunately, we seem to have been sliding for some time. God only knows how much more time we have before we hit the bottom.