Contemporary Classical Composer

Notes

Reflections on Civil War Letters

Bob Blaisdell, ed. Civil War Letters: From Home, Camp & Battlefield  (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2012).

This collection of Civil War letters—written by small and great, northerners and southerners—offers a direct glance into the minds, hearts, and experiences of those involved in this fascinating and tragic moment of our nation’s history. The racial tensions of the present day in the US recall to me the time when blood was spilled, copiously, over political disagreements ultimately resulting from racial injustice. While the war was set in motion due to slavery, the subject apparently took a back seat in the minds of those in uniform. There is evident racism in the letters of some of the Confederates—such as J. Traviso Scott, who looked down upon negroes, and hated with the utmost seething hatred the band of Yankees that “invaded” the land of his countrymen. Other Southerners took to arms simply because their fatherland demanded their service. Some Northerners cite the cause of the Union, but seldom is slavery ever mentioned. Interestingly, Northern soldiers were generally apathetic about their service compared to Southerners, who were fueled by a sense of strong indignation. Perhaps this is because, indeed, the North was invading—fighting for a cause that did not directly affect their own freedom, although their efforts ultimately loosened the chains of the southern slaves. It is baffling to reflect that this bloody reckoning took place on American soil.

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Stonewall Jackson is a fascinating character. He is the kind of man that Christian churches the nation over would welcome into their fellowships with open arms: committed to scripture, God, country, and family; and yet he was ruthless in his defense of Virginia against “Northern aggression.” Most intriguing of all to me was General Lee, who was firmly convinced in the rectitude of the Confederacy’s intentions—self-defense against distant military power—and yet acknowledged slavery as a “moral and political evil,” and exhibited the character of a deeply loyal, humble, reflective, and spiritual human being. I am reminded that, under the right conditions, political disagreements could mean military enmity with quality people. Some might seem just fine with such a state of affairs; but how many indeed wouldn’t be pained to know that some of their family and friends were on the other side? Perhaps we should take this to heart before railing against the political tribes we hate.

Finally, what struck me was that at this time in history everyone believed in Providence (even the foul-mouthed soldiers that cursed him). All events were interpreted through the lens of God’s direct involvement. One Union Lieutenant, Richard C. Derby, nearly drowned in a river, but was cast ashore in time, the only one of his comrades that survived. He believed it was Providence that spared him, but went on to give his life less than a year later at Antietam. Did Providence indeed spare him only to lead him to death on another field? Or was his escape from death a matter of chance, which he interpreted as Providence because he was the only one who happened to survive? Perhaps it is impossible to tell with certainty. The naturalist would assert chance; the theist may defend Providential action. But then what about Stonewall Jackson’s thankfulness to God for sending favorable weather, for working all things together for his good on the battlefield? Was God doing this and at the same time working on behalf of the Union Captains who believed the same thing when they won the day? It would seem not. In any case, these are the case studies on divine providence. One can learn as much and maybe more about the subject here than consulting thick theological tomes. These letters also confirm the need for a more refined belief in Providence among those committed to the good fight of faith today.

Review: Pope Francis’ Letter to the World

Pope Francis, Praise Be To You (Laudato Si’): On Care of Our Common Home (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015).

Pope Francis took his appellation from Saint Francis of Assisi, a figure beloved not only by believers, but by rock stars and hippies. The medieval saint was a friend of animals and communed with God in creation. The reigning pontiff has devoted his first encyclical (the full text of which is available here) to the environmental crisis of the modern world, addressing the economic conquest of humanity which has left polluted air, contaminated water, deforestation, and extinction in its wake. Francis echoes and amplifies the warnings of all the previous popes since Saint John XXIII (1958-1963), and speaks out as the prophets of old warning ancient Israel to repent.

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The Pope today addresses his epistle not only to the Catholic church but to the world, and embodies in his pen the “genuine and profound humanism” that he urges all to embrace in pursuit of a noble and generous society. Several of his comments reminded me of Schumacher (whom I suspect he, as many others, has read), such as those urging self-limitation and condemning the “technocratic paradigm” which promotes mechanized efficiency at the expense of human and environmental dignity. One of my favorites is this: “If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our magestructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony.” He continues: “Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.”

In a world of globalized technology which tends to compromise genuine community, create social alienation, and express itself in metropolitan expanses of asphalt, smog, and noise, the Pope commends those who positively overcome the isolation and ugliness, as through compassionate generosity and devotion to community. As an artist, I particularly appreciated the following line: “Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example…when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome the reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it.”

To address the urgent crisis, Francis calls for political action, and encourages individuals not to underestimate the impact of a conscientious lifestyle. He invokes scripture while envisioning a world that reflects the glory of its creator as humans care both for the environment as well as one another, especially the poor. Standing in the way of this vision is are “obstructionist attitudes,” which “even a part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” The Pope condemns the spirit of pride that refuses to acknowledge a principle higher than the self, as well as the relativism and materialism that leave people ethically bankrupt to attempt change. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he says:  “When the human person is considered as simply…the product of chance or physical determinism, then, ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes.'” Writing in an age when materialistic scientism is the dominant school of thought among intellectuals, he articulates a highly relevant truth: “even if we postulate a process of evolution…our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.”

While I personally agreed with the vast majority of the Pope’s points, I had trouble with his call for a world authority to enforce international compliance with environmental standards. The Paris Agreement of December 2015 seems to me a better model, in which world nations voluntarily committed to some of the necessary measures. No doubt the extraordinary response in Paris among virtually all nations was in part due to the Pope’s influence.

In any case, Francis’ letter to the world deserves our respect, and his call for change, the ongoing commitment of those who call this earth home.

Schumacher: Two Reviews

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered [1973] (London: Vintage Books, 1993).

This book is a response to the prevailing materialist paradigm of economics that has been the driving force of developed nations since the industrial revolution, especially since World War Two; it is also a vision of what human civilization could be, based on an economics that prizes not only profits, but human and environmental dignity. Schumacher exposes the folly of devout adherence to the notion that “bigger is better,” and urges a “self-limiting principle” to world economies, especially the advanced ones including his own, Britain. Such economic self-limitation is a stench in the nostrils of those preoccupied with amassing material wealth despite any social and environmental costs, and the ego which is the driving force of that pursuit. Schumacher brings balanced wisdom to the economic problems facing the modern world, acknowledging the necessity of economic profitability and individual freedom as well as the social and environmental consciousness which we silence to our own peril. In the end he navigates clear of the noisy extremes characterized by the defiant defenders of unbridled capitalism and the livid champions of the proletariat. Schumacher decries lifeless factory working conditions, the worship of the machine, and unsustainable consumption of energy (or “natural capital”); and urges emphasis on local economies, practical but non-technocratic assistance to developing nations, and proposes a form of common ownership of large businesses. IMG_2155

Despite the age of this publication, the principles it embodies remain as relevant today as ever. His chapter on education powerfully articulates the beauty of bestowing charity and magnanimity to our children instead of the impoverished metaphysics preached by the intellectuals of the nineteenth century–Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, etc. The truth-content in this volume is staggering. Many books one must read long and hard to find some silver or brass, and occasionally some gold; every page of this book pays dividends. Some chapters are pure gold. The most challenging part to me was the concluding section in which he proposes 50% government ownership of businesses that grow past a certain threshold in size. Setting aside any prejudice on the matter and considering the argument through the lens of pure reason in the service of love and freedom, I find his idea very difficult if not impossible to find fault with. In short, Small is Beautiful is a beautiful book written by an uncannily gifted but humble intellectual, respected economist, and friend of humankind.

 

E.F. Schumacher, A Guide For the Perplexed [1977] (London: Vintage Books, 2011).

My review of this book was first published in October 2015 on Amazon.

Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed is the author’s response to the philosophical juggernaut of materialism in the western world. In it, he exposes the intellectual and spiritual poverty of the view that man is nothing more than a naked ape with advanced computing power; that there is no essential difference between inanimate matter, plant-life, animal life, and human life; that all these levels of being merely represent different arrangements of matter; that all reality and knowledge can be reduced to the objective measurement and analysis of physics and chemistry. This has been the prevailing view of scientists and intellectuals in the modern age, beginning with Descartes, and remains so today. In this book, as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1977, Schumacher demonstrates the inadequacy of this philosophy, while pointing to the ancient tradition–confirmed by modern writers and mystics–that matter, life, consciousness, and self-awareness represent progressively higher Levels of Being, and that recognition of this hierarchy is essential to a true understanding of the world. He posits “four fields of knowledge”: knowledge of oneself, i.e. one’s own interior existence; knowledge of the interior existence of others beings, achieved indirectly by communication and interpretation; knowledge of how one is perceived by and exists in relation to others; and finally knowledge of the outside material world. “Materialistic scientism” focuses exclusively on the last of these fields. While the study of this material field has yielded breathtaking results in science and technology, the study of all four fields is essential for a true attainment of human progress, peace, and purpose. Those who ignore the first three fields of knowledge remain ignorant of what truly matters.

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This book is offered to those who, like Schumacher once did, find themselves perplexed that the desires and experiences that make us human—the desire to live a self-transcending life, the appreciation of beauty, our yearning for purpose and fulfillment—are reduced to illusory or accidental byproducts of evolution. The author respects and values the advances of science, but differentiates between these and the preposterous metaphysics with which they are clothed. He warns that the modern world cannot long survive in them.

The author’s distinction between the instructional and descriptive sciences is brilliant and essential reading for anyone working to contribute to human knowledge in any sphere. As a musician, I am particularly inspired by his appraisal of the value of art, how its highest value is evident in the communication of truth.

Schumacher’s power of synthesis and wisdom is evident in his appeal to an impressively wide range of sources—ancient, medieval and modern. In his appeal to the various religious traditions of mankind, he assembles a universal chorus that harmonizes in recognition of the deeper realities beyond the superficial layer of the physical. While Schumacher wrote as a Christian, his intended audience is broad, and he makes no demand that the reader even assent to belief in a deity. Meanwhile, the theist can savor the truths he articulates as if at the table of the Lord. In the chapter devoted to the first field of knowledge, Schumacher emphasizes the importance of meditation, characterizing it as an exercise of self-disciplined focus, and celebrating a variety of methodologies. Here religious disagreements may arise; and yet when viewed within the larger context of challenging materialism and of subordinating the intellect to the spirit, any such disagreements will seem peripheral. In any case, the book is indeed a precious and accessible guide for those perplexed by the inconsistency between their desire to live a meaningful, self-transcending life and the materialistic scientism preached by our modern intellectual authorities.

Two Books on Science and Religion

Here are two reviews on books that address how God interacts with creation given the discoveries of modern science:

John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction With the World [1989] (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005).

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I picked up this book in search of perspectives on how God acts in the world. The picture painted by science seems to minimize the need to invoke supernatural causation, and yet as Christians we hold a biblical tradition of Providence, and interpret our daily lives through the lens of God’s intimate concern, involvement, and interaction in our lives and indeed all of creation. Polkinghorne suggests that God operates from behind the veils of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Sub-atomic physics is viewed (though not by all!) as indeterminate; larger “chaotic” systems such as the weather are also indeterminate; as a result, there is an “openness” to the unfolding process of creation. No one can say with 100% certainty what is going to happen. God can therefore cause whatever he wants whenever he wants by, without violating the laws of conservation, nudging tiny elements here or there within these realms, desiring the chain of events that follows. To me, this view is interesting but ultimately speculative. Worse, Polkinghorne’s argument is maimed by his unwillingness to give up philosophical realism: for him, matter and the laws that govern it are absolute, and God must work around them. There are better perspectives available. What’s important, though, is that Polkinghorne recognizes the problem of divine action and doesn’t offer trite answers for it.

I found Polkinghorne’s writing style often taxing–he cites many bland theological quotations while forbearing to state his own views, and cloaks his prose in the tediously refined style of the academy. Yet there is some silver in his treatise: he exposes what he calls a “facile” and “glib” view of Providence, such that the believer interprets every life event from open parking spaces to rheumatism as direct from the hand of God, sent either as grace or punishment; but on the other hand he defends faith in Providence: “I do not think one can deny that there are remarkable threads of coincidence to be found in human life which it is proper for those who experience them to interpret as the personal God calling them by name.” In the end he endorses a balanced view that justifies thankfulness and prayer–what is at stake–while avoiding the simplistic view of Providence.

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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After Polkinghorne, I was curious to see whether a better perspective on the problem of divine action in the world had been articulated. Plantinga devotes attention to this issue in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, which evaluates real and alleged conflicts between religion and science. In it, he argues that there is no real conflict between theistic religion and science, but that the real conflict is between naturalism and science. Naturalism, the idea that there is no such thing as anything supernatural, is a metaphysical interpretation of or “add-on” to scientific theories like biological evolution. Plantinga takes up the foil against the belligerent atheists, Richard Dakwins and Daniel Dennet, and duels with skillful vigor and a flare of play. A lover of science, Plantinga embraces evolution, and turns it against the naturalist/atheist by arguing in the end that if Mind is the product of unguided natural selection, then our mental faculties are not reliable guides in our search for truth. This undercuts any dogma preached by the naturalist, such as the assertion that “the evidence of evolution reveals a world without design.” As for divine action, Plantinga echoes the notion that there is plenty of room for God to work from behind the shroud of quantum physics–whether to cause genetic mutations, guide evolution, or do the miracles recorded in scripture or prayed for in the present day. Unlike Polkinhorn, Plantinga is not struggling to avoid checkmate, but makes his moves confidently, showing that atheists and evolutionary psychologists have not gained their point against theistic religion in the name of science. I see the book as a whole as a serious challenge to and even firm chokehold on dogmatic naturalism.

Review: Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man

Second in my list of books from last year is:

Jane Goodall, In The Shadow of Man [1971] (Boston: Mariner Books, 2010).

I started reading this book on a plane to New York on April 3rd—and then discovered that the date marked Jane Goodall’s birthday. The introduction tells of the book’s wide influence since its first publication in 1971, including the anecdote of a traveler who took this volume along with the Bible as the two books she consulted in times of perplexity and discouragement. Indeed, the story of Goodall’s work as a young naturalist and primatologist seems to be sanctioned by Providence. She had a lifelong desire and passion to observe animals, and through various conflicts and obstacles was able to begin work watching chimpanzees in their natural habitat in the Gombe forest of Kenya. The work was extremely taxing and difficult, and fruitless for over a year; but through perseverance and refusal to despair, she was able to go on to observe the apes in closer detail than ever before. Her work proved seminal in the field of primatology, and transformed our perception of apes and of ourselves in relation to them. There is such depth of meaning in this story that for someone who believes in such a thing as Providence, it may be difficult not to see the hand of God in it.

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Goodall is not only a revered primatologist, but an excellent writer. Her story reads almost like a memoir, artfully crafted and richly descriptive, but at the same time full of technical observations on chimpanzee behavior. Since reading this book, and having contemplated the great apes, I view human beings differently. I see human virtue, selfishness, sexuality, love, social hierarchies, bipedality, and nakedness all in the context of how they are similar to or different from apes. When I visit the Phoenix Zoo, I look long and intently on the orangutans, so strikingly similar to us as are the chimpanzees. The creatures Goodall describes are fascinating and magnificent. Her account of them is not without tragedy, but her story awakens us to greater concern for them and indeed the entire natural order. Although a keen and tireless observer with deep love and respect for the chimpanzees, her interaction with the apes was of necessity limited. And yet through it all, she writes, “We began, though indeed ‘through a glass darkly,’ to understand what a chimpanzee really is.”

 

Books I Read in 2015: Plato, The Republic

January 11, 2016

This post marks the first in a series of reflections on books I read in 2015, offered mainly for my friends and family, as well as anyone else online looking for reviews of these works or otherwise interested in subjects ranging from philosophy, science, theology, and spirituality to economics, politics, and history. The first on the list is:

Plato, Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Edited by Elizabeth Watson Scharffenberger (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004).

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There is too much in this long and truth-packed document for me to attempt to summarize or comment on in a brief space; but within the greatness, I found many striking parallels with the Bible. After reading through, I closed the book convinced that Plato was a Christian. Of course he predated Christ, but the essence of his teaching harmonizes beautifully with that of Christ. No wonder medieval Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas deeply respected him. Among the striking parallels with the Bible are the following: Glaucon poses the question as to who is happier, the unjust man who is prosperous and celebrated as righteous, or the just man who is viewed as wicked, and then “scourged, racked, bound…and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, impaled.” Years ago I read C.S. Lewis cite this passage as one of the most outstanding ‘pagan’ anticipations of the truth. Reading it for myself confirmed to me the idea that what I as a Christian call the Spirit of Prophecy is not limited to people who have a conscious knowledge of the Gospel. Equally striking, furthermore, was Plato’s quotation of Romans 8:28 in Book 10 (four centuries before Paul!): “Even when [the just man] is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death…” Peppered throughout Plato’s Republic are many other images, ideas, and turns of phrase that recall various passages in scripture. If there is a single Spirit of Truth which, as Paul preached to the Athenians in the first century, is not far from all men but quite near, it is no surprise that such spontaneous concord should be discovered.

Overall, Socrates’ task is to answer Glaucon’s challenge to prove that the just person is truly happier than the unjust; this he does by sketching in detail the structure of human civilization, ultimately drawing parallels between the State and the individual, which is a microcosm of the former. Like the State, the individual has forces within that strive for mastery, but which must be ruled by wisdom and love for absolute truth. The dialogue becomes an occasion for Plato to propound his political vision, and to envisage the ideal State. Few works have been as influential throughout history.

Glaucon’s challenge is only resolved in the end when Socrates appeals to the immortality of the soul. The idea that there is reward and/or punishment beyond the grave offers rational justification for preferring the life of a just man, even when it means misery and sore travail, to the life of the unjust man, even when it means adulation, merriment and delight in this life.

Also paramount in this book, and of special interest to me as a composer, is Plato’s view on literature and music. Its purpose, he says, is to impart and reinforce the love of virtue within the citizens of the State, particularly the young in the context of education. Music and poetry—Plato often singles out Homer—can be judged based on whether it tunes the strings of the soul either to courage and temperance or to pusillanimity and lust. Reading this reminded me of Beethoven, whose personal library included the Republic and whose music often embodies the virtues Plato praises in this work. The essence of Plato’s teaching, I believe, remains relevant today: goodness in art reflects goodness in humans, and both should be encouraged and celebrated heartily.

Why Can’t You Feel Your Face?

September 10, 2015

I continue my look at the pinnacle of pop-music success, #1 on the billboard hot 100. Apart from my personal curiosity as a classical composer, I hope to put into words what attentive listening looks like. Pop music is not meant for attentive listening, but for passive listening either as aural sugar or else dance music. But what happens when you listen to it attentively? This is the ongoing experiment. Finally, a discussion about popular music is a discussion about culture—what we value, how we think, who we are collectively, etc. It is never a bad thing to know such things about the society one finds oneself in.

For the week of September 12 the no. 1 song on the charts was “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd.

The song opens with a synth emerging out of silence like a star walking onstage. Soon he seizes attention with lyrics to a simple pop melody. Comparisons to the King of Pop are warranted: there’s a Jackson-esque urgency in his voice—hot, sharp, full of self-assurance and performance energy. It’s the repetitive cadence of the melody that belongs to the present decade, as The Weeknd celebrates the perennial theme of badness.

What makes the song ‘bad’? Look at the opening lines:

And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb

And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come

But at least we’ll both be beautiful and stay forever young

This I know, yeah, this I know

Obviously there is a contradiction. Will you die or stay forever young? But contradiction is the point. There is a strange pleasure in intentionally embracing falsehood, especially when you are addicted to something.

The celebration of contradiction, though, is an old strain in rock music (broadly conceived). Think of U2’s “With or Without You,” Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” and even the Beatles’ “Getting Better”—it’s getting better all the time (it can’t get no worse!).

But still: what the heck is the song about? I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…but I love it?

The first thought is that it’s simply about an erotic relationship. But if so, how could numbness of face have any significance? Isn’t facial sensation a good thing in the midst of (ahem) romantic interactions? How could it possibly be construed as a compliment: “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you”?

Apparently it’s a reference to cocaine, which can act as a numbing agent. Like Eric Clapton’s “she’s all right,” this song personifies the stimulant with the feminine pronoun—She told me ‘don’t worry about it’. So the song is about cocaine personified as a girl. On the other hand, it could be about a girl who is compared to cocaine. Either way, to understand the song, one has to get the reference. If one doesn’t, it must be exceedingly meaningless.

But how many people playing, streaming, or dancing to this tune know or care about what it really means? There doesn’t seem to be any widespread acknowledgement of its real meaning. The whole situation looks like a very sad, but not surprising, commentary on the state of popular taste. “Who cares what the song is about; it makes me feel good!” There is no need to satire this; the masses are already satiring themselves.

The song is in some way parallel to the name, The Weeknd. First of all, he’s saying “I’ll spell my name however I want to. I don’t want another e in there. Done.” But now non-initiates might think: “Are you supposed to pronounce it ‘weekend’? What else would it be? I guess it must be that.” Then, “Oh, of course, The Weekend!” when they hear someone else say the name, or look it up on Wikipedia. Abel Tesfaye creates an image for himself that people don’t quite understand unless they’re initiated—in the circle. People desperately want to be in the circle. Now they’re singing “I can’t feel my face” thinking it’s just a dope love-song. It looks like The Weeknd is playing on how ignorant people can be—when the beat is good enough.

What about the music itself apart from the lyrics?

The first verse doubles as a sort of intro. Synth sounds keep the tension up until the beat comes in. The beat has a slight disco-feel, and is obviously simple and repetitive, which lends to its rhythmic power. It makes you want to move. Without this beat, the song wouldn’t be #1. There are other factors too, but the beat is the sina qua non.

“Woo” happens every time the chorus starts. Tesfaye channels the height of feeling, which is what dancing in da club is all about. Yielding to the power of the beat is analogous to yielding to the power of cocaine, or this girl who is like cocaine, or both.

An interlude forms the bridge—the beat stops, and the spotlight is on what’s going on in the subject’s mind, regardless of any external realities, like the noise and bright lights of a club. This breaks up the monotony and creates some real contrast. It also recalls the intro, so that when the chorus starts again it’s like a new beginning. It also emphasizes the conscious choice the subject (i.e. the singer with whom the listener is supposed to identify) makes to enter and reenter the state of inebriation which the beat symbolizes. The song is short; but offers plenty of playing ground for DJs, who can mix it, sample something over it, make it last as long as necessary.

In sum, it’s the latest popular oblation to goddess of hedonism, the mainstay of the popular music industry, inviting people to discard their moral inhibitions and yield to the object of their affections, whatever it may be, whether it’s addictive, destructive, face-numbing, fatal, or worse. And why? Because this is what sells.

Thoughts on Billboard #1: “Blank Space”

December 8, 2014

A few weeks ago, “Blank Space” supplanted Taylor Swift’s other hit “Shake it off” for the number one slot on Billboard. Here are some thoughts on why and how the new chart-topper appeals to the masses.

 

“Blank Space” uses a harmonic cycle made famous in the 1950s : I-vi-IV-V, along with a melody that repeats with each chord change. The song is a story of the subject—Swift—meeting a boy and the possibility of either extreme pleasure or pain that might descend upon him as a result. Meanwhile she remains, as usual, immune to disaster whatever may ensue.

Swift’s vocals open like pugilist jabs. You have to listen closely to catch them. No one listens to them until they slow down with lines like, “you look like my next mistake.”

As usual, Swift exudes high self-confidence. “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend…” she chants knowingly at the end of the first verse.

The transition melody to the chorus is sweet and comely. Everything before was barely a melody at all, a bare minimum of notes to carry the fast-proceeding text while the rhythm and harmony kept listeners happy. The transition melody to “let’s be friends…” is the hook. When it comes, there’s excitement. Like a high school dance.

The chorus is double-length. The poetic variety there is exceptional for pop-songs. As with the opening verse, you have to listen attentively to get all the words on the first hearing—which, again, nobody does. To most listeners, it’s not about that. You can always hit repeat anyway.

The acoustic guitar in the chorus, which is along with everything else is highly-mastered, offers warmth. And the sweet high-register melody that proceeds is like an enchantment, especially with the portamento at “they’ll tell you I’m insane,” with the chord change to V. Of course it’s all highly sardonic. She shouts at end of chorus: “and you love the game,” to a deliberate, assertive rhythm, with reverb. It all communicates power, specifically sexual power. The message is clear even without an assiduous comprehension of every word: handsome boy, I am your doom.

For a more explicit sexual innuendo, listen to the breathy vocal-trail at 0:27. This is a common technique now for female pop vocalists, and it sells.

The bridge is very dark, musing on boys, love, and torture. The parallelism of the lyric is mediocre (“say I didn’t, say I didn’t”), but she gets away with it. The whole phrase repeats verbatim, and would have been intolerably boring if she didn’t harmonize with herself each time the melody repeats, gradually expanding to four-part harmony. The dramatic point here, incidentally, is self-justification: boys really love the game of being tortured with infatuation, so there is no sin in toying with them like a cat does with a mouse.

The song follows the traditional formula: the chorus repeats after the bridge. The harmony is all diatonic too. The music is very conventional in this sense. The spoken lines are the most innovative feature. The beat, also, was manufactured to be “new” without straying from marketability.

Overall, I think the song is famous because it has a cool beat and sweet melody—when it blossoms forth as a pink rose in the sunshine—and exudes a self-confidence empowered by feminism. There’s also a freedom in it: freedom from pathetic moral restrictions such as “thou shalt give a shit about thy boyfriend’s heart.” Taylor, in this song, relishes the feeling of power, both in seducing her boy and in her immunity to any potential heartbreak (which in the video is more than evident; I recommend, however, listening to the song without watching the video since video can distract). Your fate is in my hands she revels throughout the sweet progressions. The song appeals to the need to feel this way. Or it simply appeals to those who like new music and don’t care to listen to it closely, but dance to it affectionately with their boyfriends.

Analysis: Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”

November 16, 2014

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” currently holds the title of #1 Song on Billboard. Such status merits the attention of a music analyst. I therefore offer the following thoughts on the current reigning champion of recorded tracks in the hope of better understanding why it is successful and how it appeals to popular taste.


The song begins with a confident drumset rhythm, and vocals that open with: “I stay out too late…” followed by a list of other subjectively internalized rebukes. But then she continues: “that’s what people say….mm, mm.” Immediately, the song’s essence is laid out: she doesn’t give a f**k what her critics think. This may already have been obvious, but the analytical details work together to convey the overall meaning:

First “mm, mm,” is something you do when you taste good food. The fact that she does it here communicates that she is in no way displeased by the list of criticisms, but in fact rather enjoys being immune to them. Also, the drum-beat is telling. It’s syncopated, upbeat, multi-timbral; the bass drum is deep and resonant. It represents her confidence in the face of criticism. She “never misses a beat”—a boast from the second verse punctuated with a vocal effect that sounds like she just took a draught of Mountain Dew…more taste imagery that reinforces the sense defiant satisfaction in the face of her lemon-sucking enemies.

Next, the harmonic progression, sketched by the sax and vocal, is not the usual ii-V-I, but ii-IV-I. Why? Because she feels likes it. The first couple of times it cycles, the resolution on the tonic G is unexpected, but once it’s there, it’s obvious—a sprightly 3-2-1 line with mm, mm outlining a pentatonic set below: happy stuff.

The “sub-verse” that transitions to the chorus, in contrast to the aggressively declaimed “critical” lyrics, starts “but I keep on cruising…” Her tone here is sweeter and slightly softer. This is who she is. Unaffected. Unperturbed. Happy in fact.

All this happens before full instrumentation is unleashed. With the arrival of the chorus, we get the bass, brass, synth strings, and even some choral oohs and other percussive effects. Leading the festivities, Taylor exults in long-breathed descending lines, vamping on what the “players,” “haters” and “breakers” do in direct comparison to what she does in response: “shake it off.” Commendably, she uses different words to the same melodic pattern, a forgotten skill among all-too-many popular songwriters.

The long descending lines of the chorus, furthermore, contrast with the short, aggressive jabs of the opening verse. That contrast keeps the song interesting. There is imaginative variety, despite the repetition of the underlying drum-beat. Also, the descending vamp on the verbs: “hate, hate, hate,” etc. is like a derisive hand-gesture of babbling. She fully comprehends but is bored. When Taylor “shakes” such things off, it’s to the same melody, as if meeting force with force—mildly but effectively.

After the second chorus, Taylor addresses her listeners with the spoken word using a ‘telephone’ vocal effect. At first, I thought this address would be a challenge to her detractors, but it turns out to be an invitation to people to follow in her footsteps—or dance-steps—in getting down to the “sick beat.” She proceeds to rap an example of how she shakes things, in demonstration for her teenage fans.

As the chorus repeats to close the song, she improvises, overdubbing vocals, and at one point throwing “you got to” in-between repetitions of “shake it off.” Again the message of empowerment is issued to those who feel intimidated by the cool kids.

The music ends with octaves on the submediant—i.e., not where it’s supposed to—yet another defiant jest that eschews any need to conform to expectations for fear of judgment.

Overall, the songs reflects that highly-esteemed value of social confidence, the ability to express oneself without fear of repudiation by “mean” people. The song affords her fans the opportunity to share in her sense of liberation. Beyond this, I see it as a not uncommon response among celebrities to the vicious public scrutiny to which they are subject and with which they must cope. As a pop song, it is undeniably a success.

The Power of Natural Selection?

This Labor Day weekend I started watching the Cosmos series that first aired in March of this year and is now available on Netflix. As an artist, I get inspiration from learning about the natural world, and for a long time science has provided, and continues to provide that for me. The Cosmos series itself is a work of art–visually and aurally brilliant. But after watching the second episode, I became keenly aware of an all-too-familiar habit of those propounding the wonders of evolution: that of speaking about natural selection or nature as a powerful agent or even quasi-conscious entity.

The second episode, entitled “Some of the Things that Molecules Do,” explores the evolution of life of earth, and opens with an introduction by the narrator, Neil Tyson. In the intro, he asks: “Where did all the different kinds of living creatures come from? The answer is: a transforming power that sounds like something straight out of a fairy-tale of myth,” and warns gravely, “but it’s no such thing.” Later he speaks of the “awesome power of evolution” and the things that natural selection can “do,” such as account for “all the beauty and diversity of life.”

Tyson, as many with and before him, uses active verbs to describe the many exploits of natural selection. The “environment itself selects genetic changes; or “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant,” and “science reveals that all life on earth is one.” The terms “environment,” “evolution,” and “science” could be replaced with someone’s name–such as Joe, Timmy, Dagon, or Zarathustra–and retain the same syntactical logic.

Isaac Asimov, my personal tutor on the history of science (through 1984), explains the pitfalls of such language from the point of view of “scientific purism”:

“Humans, as creatures who behave in a purposeful, motivated way, naturally tend to attribute purpose even to inanimate nature. Scientists call this attitude teleological, and try to avoid such a way of thinking and speaking as much as they can. But in describing the results of evolution, it is so convenient to speak in terms of development toward more efficient ends that even among scientists all but the most fanatical purists occasionally lapse into teleology.”

He continues to confess his own “sin” in falling short of this Puritan standard, and proceeds to discuss the evolution of the brain as the result of a “long series of evolutionary accidents.”

But is the alternative expedient? Consider again the line from Cosmos, “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant, or a plant as an animal.” How might it be re-phrased? Perhaps “evolution can result in an animal’s being disguised as a plant, and vice-versa,” or “evolutionary accidents can in effect disguise an animal as a plant.” This is cumbersome. Refining words to a nicety tends to reduce their emotional impact and thus alienate broader audiences. Thus, teleological language frankly makes better business sense. If the producers of the film want to maximize ROI, they did well to avoid anything that might smack of academicism or strict technical accuracy.

However, there may be more to it that this. Throughout the video, Tyson uses religious imagery. DNA, he says, is the”ancient scripture” of life (and it is universal too, not exclusive to believers!). The realization that all living things are related is a “spiritual” revelation. The Halls of Extinction even, in the film, are depicted as a temple or sanctuary for dead species. And the opening line, cited above, attributes all the “beauty and diversity of life” to (what he later calls) the “power of evolution.” This imagery is not accidental. It reflects certain perceived philosophical implications of the discoveries of science.

In Cosmos, the traditional religious view which evolution is purported to supplant–that a provident God created the heavens and the earth–is not replaced by pure atheism, in all its genuine fatalism, but by another religion, to wit, the Religion of Nature, or of Evolution. Throughout the episode, Tyson sings the praises of Natural Selection. It is “awesome,” has “power,” and yields, “masterpieces of complexity,” like the human eye.

This religion is not new. It is essentially pantheism and dates back to prehistoric times. But a religion it is. It attributes agency to Nature, blind though it may be, and ascribes all the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of the biological world to its power. It is also responsible for the fate of every species on on earth–their survival or damnation.

There is therefore a distinction between the actual science and the religious language in which it is clothed. Now: whether one favors the “scientific purism” of Asimov or the theism of tradition is another question. I personally believe it is possible to reconcile Divine Providence with the discoveries of science including the Principle of Contingency and that of Evolution, but leave that for another time. Watching Cosmos, I simply savor the meat and spit out the bones. The meat is delicious enough and the bones can be thrown to the wolves.