Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.

 

Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.

 

Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.

 

Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.

 

There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.

 

Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.

 

Destre returns from the mists to write this post

 

Team Predator (going to Reading Mall)

I may or may not have talked about this on the blog. One of the things I rarely do but always think about is airsoft. Airsoft is a game (some consider it a sport) which involves playing in various tactical situations and games akin to paintball, but with BB guns and often replica weapons. I am aware it’s not a thing for everyone especially as it’s very injury invoking (I have a permanent knee injury from airsoft) and it is intensely physical.

 

Among my group of friends we have got a unit. We call ourselves Team Predator. I have lately been organising an airsoft day – guised as a stag party at the Reading Mall this coming sunday. I am very much looking forward to playing on that site. Apparently it was once a shopping centre called ‘Friars Walk’ which closed down and is now used for airsoft and occasionally they have a George Romero style Zombie airsoft simulation game.

 

There are various elements that I love about airsoft. I love coming across all sorts of people. You get the teenaged kids with their dads, who basically used to be us 10 years ago. Then there are the airsofters who are a bit hardened, some are ex military, some are current military and others are extremely into it. I would say that Team Predator is somewhere between those two extremes.

 

I love the role play of airsoft. I get to use leadership and tactical skills that I don’t use in my ordinary life or (that much) at work. I love the opportunity to be seen in a different way, or not be seen at all wearing a mask. In the mask you are genderless yet distinct. I have kitted myself out for airsoft and my team are similarly excited about this.

 

Another aspect of airsoft that I often overlook is…the fear. The prospect of having a gun shot at you and grenades flown about is very scary. Injuries are very real in the game (I am a testament to that) and even though it is role playing and fantasy, the adrenaline and the perception of fear and acting under pressure is most definitely not.

 

I remember the last time I played airsoft that the fear was so intense that I didn’t push as hard as I used to when I played before. The sense of fear brings with it a real authenticity. The people who talk a lot about playing may not be the ones making the crucial plays and doing the crucial actions. The sense of fear and how to act in a fast paced situation is the real judge of a good airsofter and not the size of your gun or how expensive your equipment is.

Some thoughts on my music playlists

Lately I have not listened to as much underground black metal music as I would like to. This is for a variety of reasons (scarcity being the main one). I always make a point of keeping a diverse set of listening interests. Sometimes if I hear a conversation about a band going on and I don’t know much about it, I will make a note in Google Keep and check on them later. I also have a rolling task every month of making a ‘big fuckoff playlist’ which lasts anything from 8-12 days (as in up to 300 hours).

 

I like to organise my playlists in ways that try to acknowledge the greatest amount of unity through the greatest variety of depth. I’m sure Kant didn’t envisage the application of schematic concepts in this way. I listen to music with a variety of different personas and hats. With my spotify subscription I try to organise my music in as rational a way as possible.

 

I am interested in learning about early 20th century music from the perspective of being a fan of Modernist thought. My interest in modernism also informs my interest in black metal (but that’s another story). I am also interested in connecting to understand my old piano teacher’s Jazz heritage. I had initially been listening to the early jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Benny Goodman, and then I evolved to exploring John Coltrane most recently.

 

I am also exploring composers that I haven’t known very much about and trying to get an informed opinion of. I listened to the works of Krenek, CPE Bach, Aaron Copland and I am currently exploring Jean Sibelius, Gerald Finzi and I have about 3 different Leonard Bernstein playlists. There seem to be three Leonard Bernsteins: the conductor who was well known for performing the greats and the classics of European artmusik; Bernstein the composer who wrote works that reflected this meshing of his distinctly American and urbanite sensibility with someone who is steeped in the history and heritage of the Europeans; and finally the ‘popular’ Berinstein who lives on as the dude who did West Side Story and those other Jazzy tunes. I think that through listening to all three of these Bernsteins concurrently I am having a better appreciation of his perspective and the interesting cultural soup that formed his outlook.

 

I was recently watching a MOOC on modern music which discussed the recent composer George Crumb (Whom I know nothing about). Crumb said in an interview how growing up in the USA with parents who were local band and orchestra musicians influenced him, as well as the multicultural agenda of the music department at his university. Music is alive insofar as it is both current and historical. I love listening to music through different personas, similar to how I have conceptualised Bernstein. I enjoy listening to music as someone who is a bad amateur musician. I enjoy listening to music as someone who is interested in its history and culture. Then there are the sensibilities of someone born in the 1980s and was a kid of the 90s and a 20-something through the 2000s trying to negotiate getting a bit older and uncool.

 

When I listen to all this music I explore things I like and things that I don’t like but still try to be informed about. I love the idea of trying to find some kind of unity in all the musical personas that I have, but on the other hand I think it is not possible or desirable. I want to have Shining’s Förtvivlan, min arvedel as something relatively recent that I absolutely adore and feel encapsulates me as a person, but at the same time I also feel the same kind of identification and emotion (albeit different emotional colours) about Beethoven’s Sonata no. 8, which I am currently working on and trying to deal with the tremolando of the left hand in the first movement (the word pathetique comes to mind!). Often people talk of historical periods and some have referred to the present as ‘postmodern’. Let’s say that I accept this label. Being a post-modern means that I can go to the gym listening to the music representing my outlook through Black Metal when I’m walking around with my headphones in; but also write blog posts at 3am while listening to Blaise Pascal on audiobook and listening to the music of Darius Milhaud (of les six) fame. Postmodern is one word to describe it perhaps, or perhaps muddled, confused. But not to say that these are necessarily bad things to mix it all up.

Watching: Avengers: United they Stand (1999)

On the start of any kind of discussion about this 1999 Marvel venture, this cartoon was universally deemed an average at best television show. Avengers: United they Stand serves as an example of how the flaws of an aesthetic work serve as interesting aesthetic features.

 

I knew of this show when it was originally out but I had little interest in it. In an age nearly 15 years later where there’s a big cultural interest in comic characters and franchises/intellectual properties/money-making commercial properties (delete as appropriate), the Avengers: United they Stand (UtS) serves as a lovely obscurity.

 

After I finished episode 13 I then found out that was actually the final episode. I was then reminded of a discussion in the TV series ‘Toast of London’ (starring Matt Berry [a subject for a future blog post I’m sure]) in which the titular character, Steven Toast, wrote a book without an ending. The literary agent loved the book but said that it couldn’t not have an ending. Toast made this decision to write a well considered feminist novel but left it without an ending. As if its incompleteness left it complete.

 

I feel the same about this show. The premature ending with the unresolved plot lines and even an unresolved episode arc was a masterstroke of story. There was an unresolved romantic storyline between Vision, the synthetic lifeform created by Ultron (one of the main villains); and Scarlet Witch.

 

It is certainly true that the female characters left much to be desired in terms of developing a back story or sense of an inner world, but as far as 1990s kids shows went, it fared a hell of a lot better than most. The gender ratio was about 3:5 or 3:4 (if you consider vision as normatively male – which technically you shouldn’t as a robot is genderless). The flaw of having poorly developed female characters was not so much an issue of poor gender representation but poor representation of the character roster in general, as almost all of them hardly had much back story.

 

Perhaps the big thing that people point out was the obvious thing: How can you have an Avengers lineup that does not include Captain America, Iron Man or Thor? This notion made me think really hard. In recent comics (Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X Men, All New X Men, Avengers, or in their unique cases: Wolverine and the X Men and Secret Avengers), characters such as Wolverine and Captain America are basically present either as main characters or significant background characters. Having a world where certain characters have so much of a role in that universe evokes a cult of personality about them. This could be said of world leaders or public figures who seem to be in multiple discourses (say, celebrity culture and political discourse combined).

 

Thinking about the B-team, or the other guys is a really neat angle for a TV show. Thinking back in 1999 when there was a dearth of big Marvel shows: X men TAS had finished, Spiderman TAS had finished and shows like X-Men Evolution or Avengers: EMH (which I have discussed in a previous post) had not arrived; having this bunch of B-teamers was inherently underwhelming for a comicbook franchise which put a high place on the heavy hitters.

 

There was something inherently equalising about the UtS lineup. Contrast UtS’s Hawkeye to the Hawkeye character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic world was basically a pawn, the lowest fodder of a chess board and his abilities in the final fight were…staying on a high vantage point with arrows? Contrast this to ARC powered Iron Man who flew all around the city; Thor and Hulk who are comparably invulnerable to anything resembling human. There’s probably a good reason why Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye hasn’t found the right time to re-appear in the Marvel Cinematic universe and that is because it’s hard to have a place in such a super-powered world.

 

UtS’s Hawkeye is perhaps the best character in the show by contrast to his MCU counterpart (next to maybe Vision, but I’ll get to him). Hawkeye has a rough edge to him, being a former criminal trained in the circus (sensitive to his comic book origin). Hawkeye is very much a loose cannon, with legitimate trust issues and complex loyalties. Except for the ridiculous costumes they had (which were a very thinly veiled toy commercial), Hawkeye’s character made a Marvel character look…human when it is not desirable to be so in such a superpowered universe.

 

Vision is perhaps my favourite character in this show. Vision has the developing humanity and exists in a show where acting wooden was actually a benefit in the context. Some of the flaws of the ‘main’ characters who appear in the show are quite notable because they reveal something very human and real about them. Captain America’s cameo in one episode shows him as brash, and an inadequate leader compared to Hank Pym’s Ant Man. Even though Cap is the universal hero he is trapped by his own reputation and seen almost as if he were a better leader than he actually is. Kids watching this show probably would have lost this level of nuance.

 

By contrast, Hank Pym appears jealous, vindictive and self-doubting as a leader, and it makes him look like a very ugly person. In addition he spies on his wife visiting a family friend of hers in the penultimate episode and when she finds this out she is a little annoyed but shes seemed to let it go pretty easily. Hank Pym does look like a pretty horrible person in this show. Finally there was the appearance of Iron Man in a one episode cameo. Iron Man seems so single minded (as he was working in one of his commercial projects) that although he appreciated the help of the Avengers and joined in the action, he had no time for small talk, reflection or even acknowledgment that he was once on the Avenger roster. This shows an interesting side of Iron Man – flawed but not like the usual flawed depiction of an hedonistic and distracted Tony Stark, who lets his personal failures have implications on his professional life.

 

To close I thought I’d mention the honorable and noble aspects of the show. Although I’d think this show was absoutely rubbish as the 13 year old that I was in 1999. There are bits of the show that are farcical. For example, the NSA liason, Raymond Sikorski (who serves as a representative of the real world) continually notes things such as the poor public perception of the Avengers; how they caused millions of dollars in damages to public property. Not to mention the episode where Big Ben  is destroyed and nothing is mentioned of it at all afterwards, except to find out how it was caused. Have no doubt that this is not a great show nor is it a good show. It’s my view though that there are interesting psychological gems in the character development (or lack of) that as an adult (who probably should be doing better things), gives an interesting complexity to the show.

In Praise of: Captain America

I’m a bit behind in what I want to write about lately. Evidence of this is the fact that Antisophie was discussing about the ‘fatigue’ of super-hero films after Thor 2: the Dark World which may lead to suggest that the emerging genre is tired and has little to offer except more of the same.

 

Then I saw Captain America: the Winter Soldier, twice. I saw it with two different groups of people. One with a nerd friend, who got all of the easter eggs and got all of my jokes about defeating Magneto with a wooden gun. The other group I saw it with were the last people to take any interest in super hero films that involved the supernatural, but oddly enough they don’t mind science fiction if it fitted in with their worldview (i.e. technologies that were conceivable). On both counts we found the film to be quite moving, despite all the explosions.

 

Mark Kermode had a review of the film which said something to the effect of: the plot had a thread which was very contemporary which could have been developed more, but was tempered with the inevitable action set pieces that are a requirement with a big budget film such as this. One of the reasons I am a big fan of the Marvel stories is that the stories can be genuinely engaging and are a reaction to much of the things going on today.

 

On a personal note, I think that Captain America’s real super power is his commitment to his sense of personal and political value. Steve Rogers has an uncompromising commitment towards a conception of the good and on many occasions he is challenged to not always uphold this ideal. I was recently reading the 2013 issues of Captain America, where the character is kept in a dimension created by Armin Zola. Rogers spends over a decade in this dimension and his aging is visible. One also notices that he develops a relationship with a child who is Zola’s son and is challenge on a great many fronts. In the recent 2010-2012 Avengers EMH animated series, Captain America’s character faces a public backlash after his Skrull doppelganger destroys the public reputation that Rogers had. The EMH Captain America carried on despite the public hatred about him and was unwavering.

 

The idea of a Captain America has to be different in a world where the idea of the United States has vastly changed due to geopolitical and economic factors. But I’m quite impressed at how Marvel still successfully makes him relevant.

Thinking Musically

I’ve written in the past about the adjective ‘musical’. Lately I’ve been hosting and helping people with improvisation. The odd thing is that I am no expert in music and I am an amateur and dilettante. I love to watch youtube videos about improvisation and playing technique and reading things here and there. I feel that one of the things that really enhances my ability to play is just to listen. There is a skill in being an effective listener of music and for me that is more of an accomplishment than whatever I happen to perform.

 

I have often said something to the effect lately, that the emphasis in performing well is to think musically. I keep saying this so much I don’t even know what I mean sometimes. I thought I might clarify what this could possibly mean in this post.

 

Thinking musically is about a commitment to music itself, music as a human activity and tradition that goes back to – God knows when! As a human activity we have forbears and we are inevitably indebted to them. It is fair to say that I am a paternalist about music often. Many things go back to Bach. Even the things that are developed as a reaction against something else, show that something else as a form of influence (Neoclassicism vs. 20th century Avant-Garde for example).

 

To think musically is to have your own voice. To think musically is to have a sense of conviction. My old piano teacher always used to emphasise the conviction of a performance over technique. Sometimes your conviction can be so strong that you might go against the standard interpretations or customs already established. Thinking musically can therefore be a means of expressing individuality.

 

As well as a commitment to traditions, genres and so forth; there is often an internal logic. There is an internal logic to an individual piece of music, sometimes in the phrasing, the articulation. Sometimes the internal logic is to one’s own playing style. An internal logic may be towards the interpretation of a composer or period.

 

I like to apply thinking musically to when I write my blogs. One thing that is a cliche of mine, is that I go for extended digressions that don’t always have a comprehensible take home message. Another example of applied musical thinking to a non musical discourse, is Glenn Gould’s ‘The Idea of the North’. This documentary on the Northern wastes of Canada applies an idea from the musical genre of the Fugue. The subject of the documentary focuses on vox pops of various people who have an experience of living on the northern frontiers of Canada and the aural testimonies are layered on top of each other in the form of subject, counter subject, answer. Of course I presume that when Gould did this documentary, not many of the intended audience would understand this Bachian influence on the art of radio documentary making. In lieu of this obscurity, it causes me to laugh at Glenn Gould’s sincerity. That so few would understand him yet he still continued his commitment to thinking and living musically.

 

Perhaps thinking musically is not a thing-in-itself, but a media through which ideas come forth. I think of how Haydn’s music often contains humour, not within the musical form but by virtue of being funny.

 

Perhaps I have a specific view about thinking musically. Lately my idea of musical thinking is a commitment to form and using form as a tool of expression. I often feel that things such as genre and style can often be the product of our cultural education and upbringing and instead of contributing new music to add to a historical process of cultural idioms and styles, we simply replicate them. While this in itself is not aesthetically ‘wrong’ or bad (see my post on musical conservatism), it is the unconscious and indeliberate nature of these influences that is deleterious. Like Walden, we must live deliberately in our music. If our upbringing is blues and our heart is in blues, then make it so, but deliberately.

 

On having differing musical preferences

I have an improperly empirical thesis: performers often like things different to what they are working on. I suppose it’s maybe like the barber not being able to shave their own head, or working at a food preparation factory and completely avoiding the produce made from brands one stocks for (I actually know someone like that – interesting stories he has).

I remember having a few conversations with people I know to be musicians and musical performers, who can have vastly different tastes to what they are immediately working on. Perhaps the infamous stock example is when Fenriz of Darkthrone said in an interview that he likes to listen to house music, but for the purposes of appearing as Fenriz and being in the black metal mystique, he will downplay that fact. I used to be part of a choir in which we were working on some distinctly sacred works of music, and then in the conversations afterward it was established they liked very trashy (their words not mine) music like show tunes and things from Disney soundtracks.

I often meet people who read my blog, and I suspect they are probably surprised of how little I want to talk about philosophy in certain social situations. In fact I am increasingly unwilling to talk about philosophy or music or particularly blogging-preferred topics. Preferring to be a different person within blogging and without it. Likewise I probably don’t talk enough about my involvement with the Community Garden project when I muse more about Schoenberg and Adorno, part of that is a deliberate choice, the other part is deciding my niche when it comes to blogging about things.

Performing-wise I suppose I have my own such distinctions of character and sensibility. Last week I was at this impromptu jamming session where a lot of non-english language songs were performed and it getting involved with the jam was so much fun it was more about the participation. For me it was also fun to work out the harmonies and how to do continuo style accompaniment on a melodic instrument rather than a typical ‘continuo’/accompaniment instrument. So I would say to my trumpet buddy: PEDAL POINT G MAJOR TO D MAJOR DOMINANT. HARMONISE THE MELODIC LINE PARALLEL THIRD, and so on.

I find it a lack of imagination to be interested in only one kind of music, especially in the age of genrefication where there’s a tendency to be all about a certain kind of vibe and stuck in that feeling continuously. I also think from a cultural perspective it is extremely limiting. I think it is deleterious to the genre of indie how it is increasingly and incredibly posh, for example. Diversity is beautiful, although it seems having too broad a mind offends people.

Something does seem troubling to me about how I might like playing all this 17th-19th century music where what I actually listen to on my mp3 player is a mix between video game soundtracks, black metal, metal songs of various genres that impress certain memories on me and ‘trash’. My personal ultimate test for how I like music is if I choose to put it on my tired old MP3 player. Having said that, I might write and muse about how certain pieces of music or songs might be great works, but not choose to listen to it so much. I recall in an interview with (I think) Vladimir Ashkenazy, he said that while people appreciate the greatness of Bach it is ultimately ‘boring music’ to fill a full concert! I’m inclined to agree. I listen to Glenn Gould by tracks on spotify, rarely by album!

Perhaps an culinary analogy is due here. My meat and potatoes of what I like in music I know are very often not great works of art. However I can appreciate that there are ‘finer foods’ that I may desire to partake in, but it would probably be undesirable or impossible to live on fine foods all the time, even though it may be desirable in terms of cultural capital to be seen doing so.

On USBM and its alleged uniqueness

Following my discussion on Black Metal hegemonies, and Non-European Black Metal, I thought I would continue in the further vein of the chapters on ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (2012, Stosuy eds.) with American Black Metal.

 

I’ve heard Wolves in the Throne Room bandied about on so many discussions on Twitter, Facebook and the messages I’ve gotten through last.fm. Wolves in the Throne Room are a US black metal band, but are seen to be stylistically unique to the European black metal forbears. Their popularity is also a source of inauthenticity. I’ve often heard through some personal friends the most ‘hurrendous’ allegation that more popular black metal bands, or the infamous ‘post-black metal’ bands have gigs where the performers and audience have….gasp, short hair!

 

This sort of reaction seems to show how embedded some attitudes are within metal communities, or the emphasis on authenticity. Ironically, often these same people complain about the purists who say that black metal is not kvelt enough. You really can’t win sometimes when it comes to authenticity. Although perhaps the best response comes from not giving a shit.

 

Discussion of (in)authenticity aside, some authors have given an attempt at explaining the uniqueness of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the wider so-called ‘cascadian black metal’ that they apparently represent. Brandon Stosuy encapsulates it through the paraphrased Darkthrone album title: A Blaze in the North American Sky.

 

Instead of retelling the Norwegian mythology of the 1990s black metal scene, the US bands who call themselves cascadian, draw from their own sense of mythology, from their own environment and in this way do not end up as derivative as genres such as raw black metal, true black metal etc. are.

 

The US scene has different origins, different founding texts. For one, Death Metal was more influential, as Stosuy points out, and a defining moment of Darkthrone’s second album showed the cultivation of mixing Death and Black metal aesthetics and sound. Often the two scenes are kept seperate or even with some disdain for each other.

 

Stosuy points out how USBM is seen often as a joke, but focusing on the positive mythologies of the Cascadian scene shows how it has something unique to offer. Often these groups draw from more identifiably American genres, such as Punk and Shoegaze. On the other hand, some also point out how the term of USBM is just as cynical and market-y as the same kind of derision to say that it is largely derivative and a carbon-copy. That is a problem of upholding any genre label, the fear that it doesn’t actually fit!

 

It is true that Norway has a different social and economic climate to the US, and the ideal of USBM would presumably reflect that, as Thrash metal reflected the dissent of youth in the 80s, Black Metal should come from its social context and reflect that status quo. Stosuy ends his essay with an interesting reflection:

 

Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of Black Metal to flourish. But as the US dollar continues its nosedive, our Black Metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a diner in Norway – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – with converted US currency? […] While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than make up for that lack with our bleak view of the future. [Stosuy, 2012]

I have been continually thinking about this notion of being derivative against listening to one’s own sense of sensibilities cultural. It’s important to use those things around us as a source for our creativity, and much more enabling than simply copying what is currently done and what is currently in, in a given scene. I think about how Chopin turns the Nocturne (a genre invented by Irish composer John Field) into an expression of his more polish cultural sensibilities. It’s fair to say that often in European music history through the Modern period, that certain centres of power emerged between Italy and Germany – the lingua franca of written music still is Italian. Chopin expressed his cultural uniqueness by drawing from their sense of identity and context. The same could also be said for Bartok, perhaps even more so, as Bartok tried to do two things: firstly, to embrace and preserve select local folk traditions of central-eastern Europe through his Edison recordings, and also through a slight influence on his own music; and secondly through his attempt to help establish a unique American cultural identity. Bartok was not the only person with this project. One of my favourite composers (even if he’s not a ‘great’ composer like Beethoven), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor inspired the African Americans of his day to engage in the public life through culture, and the evidence seems to suggest, also politics.

 

Often in my Adorno-themed commentaries, there is a focus on the negatives of music and culture, such as homogeneity or the conformist way of cultural thinking leading to dullness of social imagination. However, movements that emphasise uniqueness or identity, such as the so-called Cascadians, may give potential for authentic expression, may give a genuine sense of cultural freshness and originality. It may even give a way of perceiving the world differently.

 

Michael

 

“Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” – A MOOC from Jonathan Biss

This month I have been following quite a few MOOCs. One MOOC in particular, and the subject of this post, is “Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” delivered by the concert pianist Jonathan Biss. Watching this MOOC helped me with a few reflections about music appreciation in general, as well as my own aesthetic tendencies and preferences. I recommend the MOOC for anyone with an elementary or nonexistent familiarity with classical music.

Accessibility

One particular dimension of the course, which surprised me a lot, was that it was very non-technical. I was expecting commentaries from musicologists and extended discussions on cadences and fugal writing. However it was not the specialism of Biss, who as a concert pianist, to comment on those aspects of Beethovenian and 18th century composition. However it does serve as a good introduction for anyone who has a passion about music to understand more about the ways in which Beethoven has a distinct legacy and relevance to listeners today. You don’t need to know too much about music to understand this course.

Music appreciation is lifelong

One of the key themes to this MOOC was that music appreciation is lifelong. Coming to terms with great musical works is ongoing through our lives. I grew in my appreciation of Beethoven while going through the course. I used to be a massive fan of the Romantics, and as I got to learn more about musicians like Adorno and Gould, I became a little bit more formalistic and austere in my musical preferences. However I feel like I’ve gone to a middle-way with Beethoven. There are pieces of music which have special value, and their value can relate to a time of your life, or your way of seeing the world then.

The joy of having a lifelong musical appreciation is that you can revisit pieces of music and simultaneously revisit yourself in a dual form of internal critique. To appreciate music is to appreciate culture, and to have an engagement with culture often involves an engagement with our own sense of individuality. It is fair to say for example, that my appreciation of motets and choral forms comes as a default from having a Catholic upbringing, but something like Beethoven’s later period is not something I was introduced to, yet learning more about Beethoven’s work in the post 1810 era makes me feel like I’m discovering a new part of myself, and a different kind of appreciation as a musician and amateur performer. I’m starting to appreciate what some may call ‘mature’ works of piano, which require emotional maturity as well as technical competence.

Socio-historical reflections

There are sociological and borderline philosophical insights that Biss had about Beethoven which will at a later point inform my commentary pieces on Adorno and philosophy of music, however for now I won’t focus too much on that. What I will say is that Biss’s discussion about the ‘independent’ musician feeds very much into discourses of today. Heck, even technical discussions about sonata form relate to songwriting today (which is a sign of poor technical ability for pop musicians today). Beethoven, unlike Bach, was able to write music that he wanted to write. Biss establishes a two tier scale of the independence of a musician against their creativity. The scale goes something like this:

Bach

Prolifically creative, Patronaged musician

Haydn

Highly creative

Patronaged, then independent musician

Mixed ability during independent period

Mozart

Highly creative during Patronage

Poor ability during independent period

Beethoven

Poor creativity during Patronage

Highly creative during independent period

The idea of the creative individual, self supporting has implications from the Transcendentalists of the American philosophers to Romantic ideas of the Bohemian, and relates to the discussion of the Adornian cultural industry. Beethoven was the cultural archetype of the independent genius, which has been mimicked endlessly since. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about the nature of dependency for artistic types to perform their work, relative to the financial support that they have. This discussion I’m sure will prompt my thinking on Adorno’s capitalistic view of culture.

The cult of Beethoven worship

Beethoven, for many the name has establishment and bourgeoisie linked to it. Like say, Bach or Aristotle. There is a reason why there is such hero worship about Beethoven, and that is due to the depth of his genius. Often however we have dilettantes who may for instance reference Descartes without actually understanding it as a way of passing off cultural capital or intelligence, and this is sad and facile. Saying this may merit an accusation of calling me a musical or cultural conservative: there is a good reason why Beethoven deserves a high place as a landmark European figure, akin to say Aristotle or Newton. Beethoven’s Sonatas express a multitude of temperaments, technically speaking they are wonderful works of pianism, the ‘New Testament’ to Bach’s ‘Old Testament’ (i.e. the Well Tempered Clavier).

A course such as this helps to unpack some of the reasons of Beethoven’s greatness. It even addresses a comparative to Mozart, in which the latter does not fare as favourably in terms of creativity. I have recently been annoyed at someone who has been trying to start a philosophy salon without having a clue about how to conduct philosophical argumentation or even appreciate the depth of the philosophical ideas he’s trying to appropriate, to borrow Adorno’s word, it is dilletanteish . A course such as Biss’s on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas makes accessible the numerous and profound ways in which Beethoven’s sonatas are truly powerful even as listeners in the 21st century.

Changing my own attitude to music appreciation

I’ll try my best not to sound snobby about music. Glenn Gould’s low opinion on Mozart’s later work is upheld by Biss himself. I remember a conversation that I had with someone completely unrelated to music, where the topic of piano appreciation came up. I talked about how I liked the showy Rachmaninov and Chopin pieces at the time, and he said how he enjoyed Beethoven Sonatas. I said to him that the Romantics were better than the Viennese classicals, and to me their appeal was much more obvious to me. The showiness and fanciful fingerings and exploitation of dissonances had a much more visceral and sensory appeal. The gentleman said to me that an appreciation of Beethoven comes from a more mature place and mature sensibility. I’m starting to be won over by that point of view. Not to say that I do not appreciate the Romantics anymore, but I am growing to enjoy the formalism and structures imbued in the more 18th century works. Biss emphasises the lifelong power of music appreciation. Music is a bonding thing between people and introspectively, music and its wonder is ongoing. Our relationship with the same piece of music can change, perhaps diminish or grow, and Beethoven’s Sonatas are a great example of a set of works that show development relative to Beethoven’s own life cycle, but also in response to our own introspection.

Michael

K457: Mozart as a metaphor

After my solo performance last month I have been thinking about continuing with my piano practice. I have also thought about picking up exactly at the point where I left off with my late piano teacher. Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor. That’s sonata 14 K. 457. The last few pieces that I worked on with my piano teacher in the final few weeks were scary. In some ways the represent something analogous to old relationships, old romances.

 

There is something unresolved about those pieces. Those pieces represent something unresolved in me. There’s a Rachmaninov piece where I just couldn’t get some of the speeds right, or just didn’t put the elements together in a performance worthy way. With the Mozart piece, I am reminded of the fact and semi-insult of my music teacher ‘Bob’, that I work very much on showy vignette short pieces. Could I ever work on an extended piece, such as a whole Sonata? I did perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Petit Suite de la Concert. But I never felt that I had performed or learned a piece that was part of a deeper pianistic canon.

 

So lately I’ve been trying to resolve this. IT feels like an internal journey going through the Mozart piece. There are different movements, a fast one, a slow one and a recapitulation one. Typical Sonata form. There’s something about Mozart that I find terrifying. Most of the other pieces of music I’ve worked on can be often clever, but there’s something continually insightful in the fingerings, the harmonies and the structure of Mozart’s music. There’s something beautiful about it that is not as obvious as the actual sonic experience of the music. I enjoy playing fun stuff like Scott Joplin or jazzing it up with friends, but usually there is not much intellectual depth to it. The pedagogical issues in Mozart are such that one cannot cheat with practicing and good technique.

 

This Mozart sonata is more than a piano piece to me, but reflects a form of philosophising, a form of introspection, a form of therapy. I fear it, therefore I must face it. There are many things in life that we fear that seem to become bigger as a fear object if we avoid it. This is one demon I wish to face.

 

There are other kinds of morals as well when practicing Mozart. The vision of music (and the world) as a variety of nuances: Forte vs. piano, legato vs. staccato, left hand vs. right hand. In music as in life, we can’t be overly one of these things all the time, doing so would be a flaw of character and a lack of depth and diversity. I tend to go for pieces that fulfill certain tendencies, but Mozart reflects and emotionally tempered and varied outlook, much more than say, Beethoven or Chopin after him. Often playing piano or legato can go against one’s present mindset, and so playing Mozart requires one to forcibly summon the mindset for smooth legati or piano volumes when the piece needs it.

 

One the thing I especially like about practicing Mozart is how it stays with me after I play it. It stays with me in the harmonic vocabulary when I’m improvising something else or even in a different style. It stays with me in life, knowing when my behaviour needs a staccato or a forte volume. It stays with me from the very careful passages I go through in a microscopic way, if I see it in another piece that requires say, an arpeggiation. It’s quite intimidating how much level of detail is in the Mozart sonata. Its exactly because it is daunting that I am so drawn to it. That has become an aspect of my outlook, to know that the daunting things often are most rewarding