[ by Charles Cameron — selected from among the very best of Dylan, Bach, and Joni ]
I don’t think I’ve ever posted either of these two pieces here on Zenpundit, but in my mind they’re the rock Passacaglia par excellence and the similarly towering classical exemplar — and if you’re exclusively classical in temperament, you may not know Bob Dylan‘s masterful Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands:
while if you’re straight rock in taste and experience, may I introduce Bach‘s Passacaglia, certainly one of his greatest organ works, here played by Ton Koopman:
Okay, that’s the classical and rock compare and contrast — here’s Bob Dylan‘s peer — and there aren’t that many — Joni Mitchell, with her wonderful Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter:
The human voice is the world’s most astonishing instrument, it’s often said. It’s capable of everything from a trill to a bark to an ear-splitting scream, from growling harmonics to liquid acrobatics, lofted on the breath like a lark on an updraft. Instrument is the wrong word, really. The voice is more like a chamber ensemble: winds and strings and blaring horns, strung together end to end. It’s a pump organ, a viola, an oboe, and the bell of a trumpet, each instrument passing the sound along to the next, adding volume and overtones at every step. Throw in the percussion of the lips and tongue, and the echoing amphitheatre of the skull, and you have a full orchestra playing inside you.
My aim in this post is to add that “full orchestra playing inside you” to that other internal polyphony of contrasting desires, identities, and emergent thoughts, and the external polyphony of all those voices with a stake in our common concerns, risk assessments and deliberations — which are constituent of our complex analytic topics.
The rest is context…
I’ve often talked about the notion that the analysis of complex human systems involves dealing with multiple stakeholder voices, also on occasion with the many internal voices within each individual, and suggested that music offers the clearest equivalent or analogy that humans successfully and repeatedly navigate. Specifically, the twin notions of polyphony — the sounding together of many voices — and more specifically counterpoint — the juxtaposition of conflicting voices and the possible resolution of their conflicts from dissonance to harmony in an iterative process — are clearly relevant to analytic practice, albeit drawing on a tradition that will seem wildly cross-disciplinary to many analysts.
Relevant here is Edward Said‘s definition of counterpoint:
In counterpoint a melody is always in the process of being repeated by one or another voice: the result is horizontal, rather than vertical, music. Any series of notes is thus capable of an infinite set of transformations, as the series (or melody or subject) is taken up first by one voice then by another, the voices always continuing to sound against, as well as with, all the others. Instead of the melody at the top being supported by a thicker harmonic mass beneath (as in largely vertical nineteenth century music), Bach’s contrapuntal music is regularly composed of several equal lines, sinuously interwoven, working themselves out according to stringent rules
In my view , which I have repeatedly expressed, Johann Sebastian Bach, the master of contrapuntal writing, is a significant exemplar for us at this time. And if it should be argued that musical methods cannot be transposed — another musical term — to matters of verbal thought, let me say that the great Bach pianist Glenn Gould towards the end of his life made specifically contrapuntal human voice radio plays for the Canadian Broadcasting Company..
the way he liked to have one AM and one FM station playing all the time in his apartment, one for news, the other for music; the way he could learn a score while talking on the phone; and the way he enjoyed eavesdropping on three or four conversations at the same time going on at neighbouring tables in the restaurants he haunted (Kostelanetz 1983: 127).
We can see here that Gould‘s basic thinking is in terms of multiple voices, often contrasting, in simultaneous awareness — Gould, Howes continues, spoke of counterpoint as “an explosion of simultaneous ideas”. As Gould puts it, Howes reports, when speaking of his radio programs for human voices:
The basis of it was that we tried to have situations arise cogently from within the framework of the program in which the two or three voices … [recorded previously in conversation with Gould, but with the latter’s voice edited out for the final version] … could be overlapped, in which they would be heard talking – simultaneously, but from different points of view – about the same subject. We also tried to treat these voices as though they belonged to characters in a play, though all the material was gained from interviews. It was documentary material, treated in a sense as drama (cited in Payzant 1982: 131).
This, then, is Gould‘s contrapuntal radio, and we can see Gould vividly transposing conytrapuntal imagination from the musical sphere to that of the varieties of human verbalization.
As not an aside but the re-introduction of a theme previously only hinted at, here is Arthur Koestler on the conceptual or creative leap:
A musical understanding of North requires re-thinking some traditional elements of music theory: harmony must take into consideration semantic content and shifting topic areas; form follows somewhat traditional musical structures (ternary, binary, etc.); and texture encompasses layering of literal voices and dispenses with traditional notions of melody. One must also consider the spatial component of tape composition, in which voices inhabit locations in a sound field. The later documentaries in the trilogy and the Leopold Stokowski and Pablo Casals tribute radio documentaries contribute to a more complete musical concept of contrapuntal radio — complex polyphonic textures, stereo sound, pitch-based harmonic content — the germ of contrapuntal radio was developed and actualized in North.
I’d like to take that lead, given us by the masterful pianist Glenn Gould, across into the field of analytic understanding — as a stream of analysis complementary and in counterpoint (for instance) to “big data” analytic tools — contrapuntal analysis characteristically working with a few, humanly-selected verbal utterances rather than data-points algorithmically-selected in the millions.
When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes – opposites in the Hegelian sense – that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.
We see here the invocation of Bach in a context of geopolitical analysis — one paragraph in the life-work of Said, who was a music critic as well as a well-known Palestinian-American public intellectual.
That single paragraph — and Gould‘s clear understanding that contrapuntal thinking can be applied to the polyphony of human voices, not just in the musical sphere — prompts me to go further, and assert that complexity studies with application to the human condition and intelligence and geopolitical analysis will all, sooner or later, arrive at the practice of contrapuntal thinking as basic to their deeper purposes.
Refocusing at the national level, on Glenn Gould‘s native Canada:
I’ve mentioned the simultaneity of voices in social contexts such as listening, hearing and understanding the views and voices of multiple stakeholder. In similar vein, Howes suggests Gould‘s own taste for counterpoint stems from and reflects the Canadian Constitution:
Gould understood music to provide a model of society, and the performing artist, hence, to be performing society, as well as music. Along these lines, counterpoint, Gould’s preferred musical style, provides a specially apt model for comprehending the constitutional structure of the Canadian state. Gould’s interest in keeping the different voices of a fugue distinct, equal, and bound together parallels the concern of the Canadian state to keep the different parties to Confederation distinct, equal and bound together. In this difficult task, however, there is always a risk of overemphasizing or losing one of the voices. If Quebec is proclaimed “a distinct society” will that disturb the equality of the provinces (for surely all are distinct); if it is not, will that lead to the separation of Quebec and the break-up of Confederation? This bi-cultural counterpoint confronts Canadians daily, from the bilingual product information on their cereal boxes to the reports of English/French political jousting on the evening news.
Counterpoint, or in more general terms, polyphony, is non-dialectical, for it involves the interweaving of voices, of ideas, rather than the Hegelian process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Polyphony as social theory does not, therefore, entail the negation of any countervailing views the way, say, a dialectical social philosophy would. With polyphony, accommodation or peaceful co-presence takes the place of negation.
[ by Charles Cameron — sensing the sense of the season, musically, with JS Bach, GF Handel, and a special appearance by Dean Swift ]
Today’s contest is between Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Christmas Oratorio, here performed by Michel Corboz:
and Georg Friedrich Händel‘s Messiah, here under the baton of Sir Colin Davis at the Barbican, with the marvelous Sara Mingardo in the alto role..
Cast your ballots, faites vos jeux — this is a win-win game.
You knew, perhaps — I didn’t — that Dublin, the place of the first performance of Messiah, was at the time spiritually dominated by Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s cathedral, and thus the commander-in-chief under God of that cathedral’s choristers? —
Jonathan Swift of the Modest Proposal “that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled” —
and that the said Dean Swift was at first unwilling to let his choristers sing in what seemed uneasily like an Opera, but later relented?
The child promised, delivered — despised, rejected — crucified and finally arisen in Handel‘s magnificent music himself became, it would seem, bread broken and shared, thus to be digested spiritually by his followers.
Dean Swift, Handel (Händel was quite British by now) — the two of them crossed staves (a pun, that, ahem) in Dublin that year, 1742 of the Common Era or Anno Domini, 16th in the reign of George II. The King’s Viceroy for Ireland at that date would have been William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, who was a founding governor of the Foundling Hospital in London, an establishment instituted for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children” — note the echo of Dean Swift‘s concerns, a DoubleQuote in history if you will.
George Frederick Handel conducted Messiah to great acclaim in the chapel of Foundling Hospital in 1750, and was elected a Governor the next day.
Swift‘s children get roasted, God‘s child narrowly escapes death at the hands of Herod the Great, but the children of the Foundling Hospital not only get saved from starvation and the gutter, but are exposed to some of the European world’s most magnificent choral music.
[ by Charles Cameron — with a poem by Richard Wilbur ]
TWO VOICES IN A MEADOW
by Richard Wilbur
Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.
As casual as cow-dung
Under the crib of God,
I lie where chance would have me,
Up to the ears in sod.
Why should I move? To move
Befits a light desire.
The sill of Heaven would founder,
Did such as I aspire.
You can read a translation by somebody who’s really good and say, Ah, that’s got to be done by so and so, in the same way that you hear a bit of Goldberg Variations and you know that’s Glenn Gould or Murray Perahia..
The poet of the original poem, whether or not anonymous, is listening to something, and the listening eventually becomes the words, so it’s not something, if a poem is really good, it’s not something in a sense he’s creating, it is creating through him, or her, and that’s what becomes the poem. So in the same way, a really good translator is listening, but it’s stereophonic, so in one ear he has the original poem in the original language, and in the other ear, there’s pure, you could say pure longing, or pure silence, where nothing is happening and he cannot force it and will not force it, and then at a certain point, the English words form by themselves, as that counterpoint to the original language, and then it’s done.
With this simple, humble poem set in a field — not in a manger, mind you, but in a field, any field pretty much, though there are crib-nativity echoes in each stanza — we at Zenpundit wish all our readers the happiest of holiday seasons, in whatever tradition you each may follow..
[ by Charles Cameron — the chief benefit of observing a liturgical calendar is found in the subtle modulations in rhythm across the year it affords the observant faithful ]
In terms of the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Churches — but not yet, I think, the Orthodox — this is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, a period of expectation of the coming of the Christ Child, and of his Second Coming at the end of days, and marks the start of the liturgical Year in their calendars.
Here’s JS Bach, bringing us a Cantata for the First Sunday in Advent, and thus a fitting opening to the season:
Zenpundit wishes its Christian readers a Happy New Year!
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.