Since the start of the year, the BBC has announced a few hundred hours of broadcasting content to mark the years in which the Great War occurred (1914-1919). In particulary I have been following an excellent RSS feed from BBC Radio 3 called ‘Music and Culture of World War I’. It’s an understatement and probably too premature to say that the 20th Century was one of great developments not least in the idea of a cosmopolitan and internationally involved global world (what we might call the globalised world). I’ve always had an interest in historical periods but I’ve found that the historical periods that are closer to the world I am familiar with seems more – for want of a better word – familiar.

I wonder what its like for the generation of people who were born a bit after me who took high speed internet and mobile phones for granted, and it makes me think about how much of a game changer things like international telephone networks, or even innovations such as the automobile or the logistical networks we rely on such as water works and gas piping or power lines. In this way the early 20th Century seems to be a little bit more familiar in that it has these administrative systems being put into place and progressively so. My dad worked in telecoms and it interested me to learn about the laying of the Transatlantic telegraph cable around the early 20th century, talk about a commercial project with its challenges and massive impacts!

The early 20th Century is full of stories of great industrial efforts that shaped the world today. Following the Radio 3 series of podcasts and programmes, I am thinking about the cultural aspects. There’s a view, Spinoza had it, and I learned it from my old Classics teacher Dr. Carleton when he taught us Athenian Democracy, which was that – if we understand our past, we understand how shit we are as humans (the profanity suits Dr. C’s view more than Spinoza’s I think). Maybe, just maybe, if we saw the parallels of the past of human history, we could learn a bit about our present, and anticipate the possible pitfalls. Our history has given us technologies, constitutions and ideologies, but I do think that we as a whole are no more or less intelligent as the people of the distant past in human history.

One episode from the Music and Culture of World War I describes Elgar’s Nimrod as the evening to a perfect summer. A perfect summer may be extended, but it will inevitably end. An allusion was made to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that at the cusp of a peak, the Romans had their downfall, and the British felt that their autumn was due. I don’t happen to subscribe to that reading of Gibbon but I see the point that is being made.

Leonard Bernstein makes suggestions that (European) composers of the first decade of the 20th Century anticipated what would come next, this may be anachronistic but it seems like the favoured view of history now that we know what the future held for denizens of the 1900s and 1910s.

My piano teacher was born around 1910-1911 and many of his influences and consequently, his influences on teaching me, were shaped by two things: classical music that formed up to the time of his life, and the (non-classical) popular music that was around during his career as a jobbing musician. In the former case, Jack introduced me to Frank Bridge, whose vignette pieces I still try to play; and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whom I often go on about in conversations with many many anecdotes. The cultural education I had was the standard Bach-Mozart-Beethoven kind of spiel. With my music teacher ‘Bob’ (mentioned in a previous post), I learned a little bit about the 20th Century; how Romanticism went to Late Romanticism, and in another related direction, but modernist movements emerged.

I read about Modernism outside music from sociology studies. Modernist movements were multi-media, not just music, but also poetry and visual arts. Modernism pushed the boundaries of previous expectations of art. Of course not all modernist movements were the same, futurism was racist, and other movements had specific predictions and expectations that did not come into fruition. Perhaps as a catch-all term, modernism isn’t helpful.

I like reflecting on this period of history as it helps me personally connect with the world that my piano teacher was born in. It makes his history link to the world that eventually became my present. It makes me wonder what the world of his forebears lived in. The beauty of taking an historical view is that we see people in different aspects of their lives, but there is an ultimate continuity to it, a connective tissue.

The BBC radio 3 programmes of 1914 make me distinctly aware of my musical preferences. It also forces me to think about certain unresolved questions. When we have seen the extremes of the human condition and having known them realised, are we so far in the present from seeing similar in the present? Also, does our culture reflect the maturity of the wisdom of knowing that humanity’s capability of destruction is a very distinct reality.

Thinking about the past should make us think about the present. For many, the interpretation of historical events is not just an abstract matter but defines our identity for the present. Remembering the cultural moments that Radio 3 chooses to acknowledge interestingly points out how momentous that bad reactions to musical pieces were, that eventually became momentous works. Having a century of foresight gives us that advantage. I wonder if the events of 2013 in 2113 will consider lesser known moments that are under the radar, and the things that we might consider big today like consumer electronics and celebrity culture, will be as Klopstock or Telemann are to us today…hardly known except by those who take an interest in the obscure.

I do make a cult of personality about the serialist composers. Perhaps that is because I find the present so incomprehensible. With the pre-war period historians have made synoptic connections between culture and politics; philosophy and art. Today I see these things as existing in highly irrelevant, independent and unrelated ways without a unifying single narrative.

Another reason of course that I enjoy the surge of programmes relating to the war, is exactly because of the connections with the culture of that time. To wit of Tito, Hitler, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, Freud etc. all living in the same city of Vienna during this period and not knowing each other is astounding, especially to consider their later impacts in their respective domains. I’d love to know what the people of the future considered as great works of the cultural present. I’d love to imagine who are considered the great political thinkers and who were the people that drove the geopolitics and economics of the 22nd century!

100 objects to explain the world

Ending today, was a fantastic series from BBC Radio 4 titled ‘A History of the World in 100 objects’. In conjunction with the British Museum; this programme explored objects which gave an account of human history through the objects we use. From objects such as the Olduvai axe, we see objects as enablers. While objects enable, innocation also broadens the scope of potential experiences. Beyond mere survival humanity becomes far more sophisticated; rituals and values emerge around sexuality, or the nature of our contact with others and our relationship with nature.

One thing I found particularly interesting is the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, which is also referenced in Hawking’s latest book ‘The Grand Design’; is that early mathematics came about as a system for administering resources such as paying workers or distributing and storing grain. Perhaps a contradiction in the human condition is the drive to consistency and organisation; against the ‘freeness’ of creativity by breaking said rules.

Creating systems, not just of theories, but of how we organise ourselves; is really a great human endeavour; whether one needs to keep the technology infrastructures working, or the support infrastructures or even the economy; the strive for consistency is one of the vital human impulses that allows for human survival, and things as mundane as keeping warm during colder months, or organising travel.

The objects towards the end of the series were particularly emotive and powerful. While most of the objects speak about the human past. Many reflected some of the battles ongoing against sexual and gender prejudice. The last two objects, a credit card, and solar panel; truly hit at the heart of the present day. The issues of scarcity and sustainability will likely be
objects that will define the immediate and distant future (if there is to be any of the latter) of humanity. It was a fascinating programe. 


“Dangerous Knowledge”

Last night I saw a documentary about 4 individuals; three of them were mathematicians, the other, a physicist. The documentary was about their reaction to a world where the classical view of the world of certainties, absolute laws, and clarity about the universe slowly faded away; and as well as the fact that people are just human, they suffered terrible lives and suffered for their craft.

The first individual was a mathematician named Georg Cantor; Cantor was working on a notion of infinity, and his work was rejected in his day. Cantor sought to establish a perfect mathematical system which was missing a key element that unified them all together; the illness he suffered was in some resepect a result of his labours to find a so-called “Continuum Hypothesis”; this hypothesis comes up later on in the program

The second individual was a physicist named Boltzmann; Boltzmann challenged the putative view that the understanding of the physical world was by a set of laws prescribed by God; but rather, we must understand physical behaviour as probabilistic and not in terms of the grand scheme of things like laws and God, but in the micro-phenomena of the world. As many rejected his suggestion he kept labouring to defend his claim, eventually writing books and treatise which eventually just kept saying the same thing. Boltzmann was around his enemies constantly and was an object of derision from his peers, such as Poincare and Mach.

The last pair of stories involve Alan Turing, and Kurt Godel. I find these particularly interesting as they hit close to home. What seemed most poignant of these stories was the price that their mathematics had on their minds, and more importantly, their mortalities.

Some of the stuff in Cantor I found particularly interesting; like a relic of his past that he carried on him constantly; a letter from his father that speaks of his father’s pride in his son; and his secret wish to be a musician, instead of a mathematician; and soon after the death of his son, whom which he wanted to be a musician, he gave up living. All of these individuals died through suicide. Poisoning, starvation, hanging…tragic ends for noble minds