Thomas Frank at Book Passages

Thomas Frank at Book Passages (12 July 2018)
Thomas Frank at Book Passages (12 July 2018)

Thomas Frank was at Book Passages last night. He’s on a tour for his new book Rendezvous With Oblivion: Reports From a Sinking Ship. He was his charming self. I think that he is on the outside what I am on the inside: totally despairing but laughing about it because it’s all so absurd. I don’t just mean the politics — I mean everything. Life is a joke, and I am the punchline. You either laugh or cry.

Poor Will

I dragged Will with me. He didn’t know Thomas Frank. I should have prepared him. While Will laughed a fair amount during the talk, he left about halfway through. I figured he went to the bathroom. We had been drinking a lot of caffeine. And indeed, he did do that. But he noticed that Book Passages sold beer so he got one.

We were separated for the rest of the event. I only saw him back in his seat when I was in line to get my book signed. (More on that in a minute.) But afterward, he was so depressed. I felt bad.

Thomas Frank Said Something New

But there was almost nothing in the speech that was really new. The only thing that surprised me is that he said he liked Democratic politicians more than the liberal commentariat and (gag) political consultants. He noted that someone he used to hate, Cory Booker, sees where things are going and is now really good. And where things are going is real (leftist) populism, not this fake rightwing stuff Republicans use to get elected so they can give tax breaks to billionaires and rip apart unions.

Listening to that, I thought he’d been reading my mind because that’s exactly what I’ve been thinking and Booker is my favorite example. And I know what conservatives and liberal “purists” will say, “He’s just saying those things to get elected!” (Yes, Booker wants to be President.) I heard the same thing about Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.

And so what?! They are Democrats! By and large, they will govern the way they campaigned. Compare this to Trump: campaigns on building the wall and how the working class is getting screwed. He gets into office and there is no wall. But there is a great big tax cut for fat cats; he’s made healthcare go up in price; he’s started a trade war that is going to hurt the working people who voted for him.

But he did stick by his racism. I’ve got to give him that!

Book Signing

So I stood in line to get my book signed. He’s really great. He’s cheerful and nice to people who stand in front of him and pontificate about things they probably learned from him.

But it gave me time to think of something to say to him. At first, I was going to say, “Could you write, ‘To Frank from Tom,’ so I can use it later to prove that we used to be friends and ask to borrow a couple of bucks.” That seemed a bit too oblique, even for someone as sharp as Thomas Frank. Also, it was a little too much Tom Waits:

Thomas Frank: Hüsker Dü Fan

During the talk, he mentioned hanging out with some of his friends under a freeway overpass drinking and listening to Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade while seeing the McMansions being built. And he asked if anyone remembered Hüsker Dü. There was a scattering of acknowledgment. I, of course, was vaguely offended. What else is new? I’m an arrogant bastard. So I figured I’d talk to him a little bit about punk. It would probably be refreshing after the constant political talk that would make Mary Poppins’ suicidal.

So I told him Hüsker Dü was great — especially Zen Arcade. Then I asked him if he was into Minutemen and he was slightly less excited by them but he said he three of their albums. Maybe he’s just really good at this kind of stuff, but giving me an exact number of books made me think he was telling the truth. And why not? For one thing, we are both the same age with relatively similar backgrounds. Minutemen were one of the most political punk bands around — outside Dead Kennedys and Gang of Four, which were much more (probably too) explicit.

Without my asking, he did give me a good signature. I don’t doubt he always uses it when he runs into people named Frank or Thomas. “To Frank from Frank. Thomas Frank.” He has a much better signature than Bruce Campbell — not that I’m complaining about having both of Bruce’s autobiographies signed, thanks to Elizabeth.

Thomas Frank’s Talk

I made an audio recording of the talk. I hate those jittery YouTube videos. The video is mostly useless and the sound is terrible. The sound is pretty terrible here too, but if you turn it up, you can make it all out. I missed the first minute or so, so I faded in. He starts by making a comment about what the Trump Presidential Library will be like. (It’s an interesting thought given that the Nixon Library was filled with flat-out lies to decades.) But the rest of it is a reasonable recording of the event.

It probably would have been even more interesting to record the book signing. But alas.

The book, which I bought more to support independent booksellers than anything, is just a collection of previously published essays — at least half of which I’ve read. But I think I’ve read The Wrecking Crew twice, so I’ll probably read this too.

one rat short – better with cheetos

i want cheetosdear frankly curious reader,

wendy here again. you could probably tell from the lack of capital letters. it’s not that i cannot type capital letters. I CAN. I CAN PRESS THE ‘CAPS LOCK’ KEY AND TYPE ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS I WANT.

but if i am to use capital letters properly, i have to do a lot more work. and this is hard enough. as you humans like to say[colon] anyway…

it’s kind of like the french phrase je ne sais quoi. but that literally means, ‘i don’t know what.’ so once again, we see that the french are more honest than the americans. anyway… why don’t you just say, ‘i don’t know.’ it would be a good start — for the whole country. but i’m getting sidetracked. and i have another sidetrack i need to get to before i get to what i came here for.

where is frank?

it’s daytime. so where is frank? well, he got himself sucked into his toastmaster thing. so he’s off at a ‘leadership’ training all day.

now frankly [opening parenthesis]ha ha[closing parenthesis], i don’t see that he needs any more outlets for talking. all he does all day long is talk to himself. it’s quite annoying, really. but i’m a forgiving rat. we all have our little foibles. and this toastmaster thing does get him out of the room more.

it’s wendy if you please

as you should know, my name is wendy fink. that’s wendy with an ‘e.’ let me emphasize that[colon] wEndy.

geez, i have to catch my breath.

so because any article published here is immediately posted on the frankly curious facebook page, some wag wrote, ‘It’s no mystery who authored this creative piece. Everyone knows its Wendy.’

[opening parenthesis]that’s right, i can copy and paste. oh isn’t it amazing[exclemation mark] the rat can copy and paste[exclemation mark]. you people disgust me.[closing parenthesis]

so okay, the guy — who has an icon that looks like a puppet’s vagina — is referencing perhaps the most anemic band ever, the association, doing their 1967 number 1 hit — with a bullet — ‘windy.’ note that’s windy with an i. i’ll emphasize again[colon] wIndy.

you know[colon] the word you would use to describe the weather when there is a lot of wind. what is wrong with you americans and your name spelling[question mark] and the song was written by a woman whose first name is misspelled as far as i’m concerned[colon] ruthann friedman. but what do i know, i’m just a rat that learned english and how to use a computer.

so frank posts the song. like that’s going to make it better because everyone will see immediately that the song obviously refers to some human because no rat would be so silly as to name a child after bad weather.

but here it is, since i know you’ll want to listen to it now[colon]

okay, brian cole looks pretty cool, but how can you not playing that bass. he died of a heroin overdose just five years later. he was just 29 with three kids. i hope the royalties kept coming in. je ne sais quoi.

one rat short

now i’ll make a guess, not being there in 1972, but i assume cole was injecting that heroin. he’d have to be — heroin was at an all-time low in terms of purity — just 3 percent by some estimates. maybe someone just smothered him and they blamed it on the heroin. it wouldn’t be the first time someone snapped over that low-e string.

but the injection got me thinking about the rat romeo and juliet[colon] one rat short by the animator alex weil.

now i’m not saying i don’t have my problems with this film. i don’t know what all that rat fighting at the beginning is all about. rats really aren’t like that. and there’s a little bit of furism going on where the black rats are vicious and the brown rat is good but from the wrong side of the roof and the female is virginal white.

but you could say the same thing of any of shakespeare’s works, so i guess it’s okay.

this is a very sweet and sad film. and trust me, humans do much worse to us than that. then again, you do much worse to each other. humans really have a lot to learn from rats.

so take a look at it. i did go to the trouble of finding it and copying and pasting the embed code. that is no easy feat for my feet. i tell ya, i should find an open mic somewhere. what hilarity[exclemation mark]

are you still here[question mark] watch the film[colon]

keep those letters coming

the email has been piling up since my last post. i’m just kidding. no one has written. but i am serious that you can write to me at rat at franklycurious.com and i will answer your questions, assuming you don’t annoy me too much.

my next post will be an advice column, whether any of you write to me or not. i’ve got loads of questions saved up like, ‘how long before humans go extinct[question mark]’ not soon enough for the planet[exclemation mark]

that’s not that to say that i don’t have a certain fondness for you hairless apes. my opinion would go up if frank would start eating cheetos. and if you don’t get that then you didn’t watch the film and i am so not in the mood for it.

cheers,
sally fink signature
wendy

introducing wendy fink

wendy finkdear frankly curious reader,

i’ve been watching frank for about a year now, so this has been a long time coming.

let me introduce myself. i am wendy fink. i live under frank’s bed. what do i eat[question mark] [opening parenthesis]i haven’t worked out the whole shift thing yet. give me time. i’m just a rat and you’re the idiot reading me.[closing parenthesis] let’s just say frank isn’t the most tidy eater.

anyway, i want to get something out of the way before everyone just goes nuts — like you humans tend to do. that is not my picture over there on the right. it’s hard enough writing this. how am i supposed to click the trackball and take a picture of myself[question mark] you’d just see an empty chair. so i got a stock photo off the internet of another rat who might have been named ‘nager sweet.’ i don’t know, i’m a just a rat. i’m almost as confused by the world as frank is.

archy and mehitabel

i know this is all just a rip-off of archy and mehitabel. but there are three clear distinctions:

  1. archy was a cockroach and no one is interested in learning about life from a cockroach
  2. mehitabel was an evil cat and there are no cats around here
  3. this is real whereas archy and mehitabel was clearly fiction.

you question me[question mark] i eat with my hands — unlike certain popular ‘pets’ i could mention that just rub their grubby faces into a bowl of something disgusting that comes out of a can. as a result, i have no problem manipulating a trackball and keyboard. sure, i’m a bit limited at the moment, but i’ll work things out. trust me. i got this far.

now compare this to archy. do you really think that a cockroach has enough weight to manipulate a manual typewriter[question mark][exclamation mark] and a cockroach that writes poetry[question mark] here’s some poetry for you:

roses are a whole lot of colors
violets are, well, sorta blue
archy and mehitabel:
fuck you[exclamation mark]

did you know someone wrote an opera about those two. unbelievable. but true. we’ll say no more about them.

advice column

i’ve introduced myself because i think i can be of help to humanity. so i’m starting an advice column. i figure you could use it.

and this is altruism. you’re all busy ruining the earth for yourselves. it doesn’t matter me and my fellow rats. we’ll be fine. you’ll be the dead ones.

anyway, all you have to do is send your questions to rat at franklycurious.com. not that it matters. if you don’t, i’ll just make up my own questions because i have a bunch that you should be asking.

please no rat-oriented questions. if you want to know about rats, get a book. and no, i’ve never had a ‘boyfriend.’ male rates are possibly even more horrible than human males.

i’ll be talking to you as soon as i get another chance at the computer.

cheers,
sally fink signature
wendy

ps[colon] according to yoast seo, i write at a much more advanced level than frank. ha[exclamation mark]

Happy Independence Day?

Happy Independence Day?

Oh, the Places I’ve Gone!

When I was a kid, I loved the Fourth of July: Independence Day! Admittedly, part of it was because they showed 1776 on television that day every year and I loved musicals. But I was also super patriotic because I totally bought all the lies my teachers had told me about this great nation.

Now it is just a night filled with loud noises and ignorant people.

One Nation, Built on Racism

Things really changed for me just a few years ago when I read The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

I really should have known, of course. Historians have been writing for a long time about the fact that the primary push for the southern colonies to enter the Revolutionary War was their fear that England was going to take their slaves away.

The Bigots…

Now I understand: for about 30 percent of the modern US population, that sounds like a damned good reason to start a war. In fact, all those people clamoring about “states’ rights” only really care about them in so far as it will allow them to bring back Jim Crow if not outright slavery. It certainly isn’t a concept they believe in when California wants to maintain high pollution-control standards.

Yes, I’m calling 30 percent of the nation bigots.

And the Racists…

The rest of us are just racists — regardless of color. That’s just what happens when you grow up in a racist society. The best of us fight it, but it’s still there — poisoning us.

As Jesse Jackson said, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

I feel the same way when I involuntarily tense up when a young black man gets on the bus. I disgust myself.

And the Liars…

There are, of course, people who claim not to have a racist bone in their bodies. They were wonderfully satirized by Stephen Colbert. I suppose some of them are just clueless racists. But mostly, I think they are lying bigots.

If you can’t admit to your faults, you have no hope of fixing them — or even becoming slightly less vile.

Revolution: What Is It Good For?!

Ultimately, the American Revolution was good for the white men that were already doing well. For everyone else — and that includes poor white men — the war didn’t improve their lives. And made the lives of millions to come far worse.

It’s Not Just About Racism

Dylan Matthews makes pretty much the same argument that I just made, but better because he didn’t spend the day writing and editing a mammoth article on Unix shells, Three Reasons the American Revolution Was a Mistake.

In the article, he also addresses the treatment of the first Americans. They would have been treated badly regardless — as they were in Canada. But it’s most likely that there wouldn’t have been a genocide committed against them over decades.

If you want to get a good idea of how badly we treated the first Americans, you should check out the ignorant and racist comments to my article Ayn Rand and Indians. I don’t want to get into it here. I’ve written a lot about this subject in the past.

Parliamentary System

Matthews third reason for why we would have been better off not separating from England is that we would now have a much more stable system of government: a parliamentary system. I’ve also written a lot about this, so I’m not going to dive into it.

You should really just go read Matthews’ fine article. I agree with it point by point.

The Bottom Line

Tomorrow, when I wake up, I will put the flag out. I don’t especially like to because I don’t like the way that people see the flag. I have traditionally seen it as aspirational. Right now, I see it as pictured above: the zombie apocalypse has happened; they’ve destroyed what’s good about us and now they’re hungry for our best aspirations.

But even if we fight them back, our vile and partisan Supreme Court will do all it can to bring the end. Because they crave brains too.

Happy “Independence” Day!

Pablo Casals on How to Appreciate Art

Pablo CasalsMy great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivaris. Francesco von Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist, telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in the house who would like to hear me play.

“Mr. Casals,” I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed, like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata was on the piano. “Why don’t you play it?” asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.

“Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!” Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.

“Splendid! Magnifique!” said Casals embracing me.

Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.

The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I palyed for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello. “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good… and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” He demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”

–Gregor Piatigorsky
Cellist, Chapter 17

My Group — Basing Your Identity on the Edifying

Pacifica - Finding My Group

Greetings from Pacifica, California. I got a good reminder of group dynamics yesterday by finding the only one around here who I consider part of my own group.

A Poor Start to My Vacation

I got here yesterday late afternoon and I was in a rage. First, the place was way more expensive than I had thought. And by I time I got to my room, I thought, “This place is a dump.” (Note: I love dumps, but I like the price to reflect it.) Then I got to the room and it was nice but small and far from the ocean.

But okay, big deal, I wanted to do was hang out — reading books and watching videos. So I started setting up the room, only to find that it had a total of two electrical outlets that weren’t being used. I called down to the front desk and asked for a power strip. Given how expensive this place was and how unhappy I was, I figured this was the least I could expect.

White People Are Not My Group

The nice white woman at the front desk said she wasn’t sure if they had one, but if they did, they would send one up. Oh, how encouraged I felt! But I pleased that ten minutes later, there was a knock on my door.

By this point, I was already suffering with another problem and imagining the 10,000-word review of this place I was going to write and post everywhere on the internet. In fact, I was even thinking of starting a website:

WhyWhateverTheHellThisPlaceIsCalledSucks.com

The problem was that I could hook up my Blu-ray player to the television (which is very nice), but the remote control unit would not allow me to change the input.

I’d given up and decided to connect my Blu-ray player to the computer monitor I had brought for this very reason. Make that a 12,000-word article.

A Member of My Ground!

But I answered the door and a nice young man greeted me with a power strip. I thanked him. It was the first thing that had gone right — a modest victory but a victory nonetheless.

He went on his way and I brought the power strip back to the desk. But then I remembered, “The television!”

A Tech?

I ran out into the hallway and yelled after him. I told him that I assumed he was the tech around here and he told me I was right. Thank God! One of my people! The women at the front desk were very pleasant and professional but totally useless for anything other than charging large amounts of money for tiny rooms with limited television sets.

I explained my problem: the television was modern, so it had HDMI inputs. I plugged in my Blu-ray player, but the remote control didn’t allow me to go into set-up. He understood the problem immediately and offered to get me the “real” remote control unit.

The Answer

So off he went and back I went. Ten minutes later, he was in my room with a proper unit. And together we worked on it and soon the television was displaying The Blood Trilogy. I told him not to judge. He smiled.

He explained to me that they had the simple remotes because most people are, well, idiots (my word) and with the real remote control units, guests were constantly screwing up their televisions. I immediately remembered all those phone calls I got from my parents over the years, “The television isn’t working!”

So I got it, and it made sense. It was so nice to have someone explain the situation and solve my problem as opposed to the front-desk clerk probably doesn’t even know about the issue and had no interest in trying to solve my problem. You know, like saying something like, “I don’t know, but I’ll ask our tech.”

The tech even brought an extra set of batteries. What a great guy! I tipped him exorbitantly and he went on his way.

Rolando!

His name was Rolando and he was a young Latino. English might be his second language, but he spoke perfectly, so if he is an immigrant, he came here young. Regardless, he was a man of few words.

But after he left, I was so happy. All my other complaints about this place went away (mostly). I was no longer a stranger in a strange land. Rolando was here!

And it occurred to me that he was part of my group, tribe, or whatever you want to call it. The white women at the front desk might look like me in their pasty whiteness. But Rolando and I spoke the same language, even if it hardly required speaking at all.

Race Is a Myth Most People Believe

This was a powerful moment for me. As regular readers know, I don’t believe in race — it’s a recent concept developed in the west to justify imperialism and slavery.

But most people believe in it in a big way. And now it isn’t just the obvious bigots — it’s people like Sam Harris and his followers.

But here was this guy who roughly a third of this nation would hate for no other reason than his skin color. (Don’t buy into the whole “illegal immigration” thing; these people would have no problem with immigrants if they only came from “white” countries. Not that Rolando is necessarily an immigrant. But most of these people would consider him “foreign” because he isn’t pasty white.) Yet here was a man who was part of my group.

Nothing Wrong With Being in a Group

I have no problem saying this. It doesn’t matter what it is, humans separate themselves into groups. There are too many of us to all feel a special kinship to all humans — not that we don’t (mostly) care when any other human is killed and eaten by, for example, a grizzly bear. But mostly, we all divide into our own group.

And I think that’s fine as long as there is an edifying reason for it. Looking the same is not edifying. For one thing, humans all look so much the same that basing your opinions on it is simply ridiculous.

The Basis of Groups

I can understand basing your group notions on social customs. But that’s stupid from an immigration standpoint because second-generation immigrants are fully integrated into the society. What’s more, the social differences that people get hung up on are usually superficial.

It’s like what Sting implied during the Cold War: the Russians love their children too. (I’m not a Sting fan and I’m not even that fond of this song; I think it made a pretty obvious point, but it’s still important.)

Hard Times and Good Groups

These are bad times — in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. Too many people divide themselves based on the most foolish of measures. It mostly comes down to simple xenophobia: the fear of outsiders. And don’t kid yourself: this is why the Republican Party is not just in control of Washington, but of the US generally. And it’s the reason this country is being ripped apart.

Good Groups and Bad Groups

I don’t have a problem with other groups bound together by things like woodworking or needlework or whatever. I don’t feel as bound to them as I am to a kid who knows how HDMI works and can program a television to work with a random remote control unit. But I get them.

I do, however, have a problem with people whose identity is based on nothing more than fear of The Other. Groups should be bound by their interest in and love of their people, not disregard and hatred of others.

It was nice to be reminded of that here in Pacifica by a young tech — even if the room still is overpriced.

How a Vacation Gets You Coming and Going

Frank on Vacation in Mexico With Grumpy SquirrelHello all you frankly curious boys and girls! I am sorry that I haven’t been writing much recently. Part of it is Donald Trump. I’ll come back to him. But the bigger issue is that I’m going on vacation starting Friday morning and I won’t be back home until the afternoon of the first day of July.

July not August! July not August! July not August! July not August! July not August! July not August! July not August! July not August! July not August!

The problem for me is that a vacation really gets in the way of my work on the things I actually care about: this site, Psychotronic Review, practicing the most evil musical instrument in the world, and writing my experimental plays. You know: the stuff I don’t get paid to do.

The problem is that there is a tremendous amount of (paid) work that has to be done before going on vacation. I already have weeks of work backlog. But I have to get the really pressing things done. And I want to too! That’s because I’m not going to be working when I’m on vacation, and that means I won’t be making money. But even though I’m going to miss 9 days of work out of this month, I’m going to manage to make about 80 percent of my normal pay.

This, of course, is because I’ve been killing myself.

And Then There’s Trump

I’m now trying to avoid hearing anything about politics. In the past, it wasn’t so bad because I thought, “We’ll probably get rid of Trump in 2020 and this will all just be a bad memory.” Sure, I knew he was causing great suffering, but there was an end in sight. And to a large extent, that’s true. The immigration policy will go back to our normal inhumane situation instead of the near-genocide that Trump is overseeing. So on the domestic front, the election of a Democratic president in 2020 — or whenever — will be a good thing.

(And yes, I know that Trump has apparently reversed course on the family separation of asylum seekers. Does everyone know that we are signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, by which the whole process of charging asylum seekers with trespass is illegal? So the whole, “Our hands are tied” explanation was always a crock. But the reversal sure shows that all those people who were claiming that the White House was doing it because they thought it was a political winner were wrong. They were doing it because Trump is a cruel man who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. I think Elvis Costello summed him up perfectly long ago, “If it moves then you f**k it, if it doesn’t move you stab it.)

Our Long-Term International Problems

It’s on the international front that things are so depressing. After Trump is out of office, things will not reset. The world has seen that the US political system is such that it can elect a modern-day Hitler. It doesn’t matter that he got three million less votes. For one thing, that’s still a very close race when you consider just how awful Trump was — not just as a person but as a candidate. But more important, we have a non-democratic system. Hitler didn’t get 50 percent of the vote. His base was roughly that of Trump’s: 30 percent.

So I figure it will take a generation or more for us to heal these wounds. And in a certain way, they never will be. I know that Brexit hurt the UK. But the people immediately regretted it. If they had been able to vote again just a week later, it would have lost. It’s not clear that Trump would lose a year and a half later — despite the fact that other than being a monster to immigrants, he hasn’t done a thing for his straight white male racist base.

(Just a little aside: I am so looking forward to the time when these people — people like me — really do have no more power than anyone else. As a group, cis white males are such whiners about losing power and blah, blah, blah. I’ll be glad to see them have something to really complain about. Of course, if they voted liberal, their lives would be better. But as a group, we are idiots.)

Onward to Vacation

The rule for this vacation is that I get to have the kind of vacation that I most enjoy: doing nothing. I read. I watch totally awesome films. I sit in a hot tub. And apparently, I get a massage, which is the equivalent of the hot tub: except I have to drive — gurr — as many as ten miles to get it. And I have to go whale watching, which is okay, I’m just not sure how I’m going to get to the boat. I’m too tired to think about it, but I have a vague plan that relieves me of having to park in San Francisco.

It’s possible I’ll write something on the blog next week. I’m not planning to, but you never know. I can’t go a day without writing something. I’m planning on working on some plays. But I’m so tired right now, the thought is not appealing. They require a lot more work than a blog post — especially a rambling one like this. (I have Facebook posts that are better than this!)

I Need This

Generally, I’m told that I need a vacation. This is the first time I feel like I need a vacation — I certainly want it more than any one I can remember. My next vacation (which will be the last for a while) will likely not be that great because I’m going with my family. And they all have this idea that you do things on vacation. And that’s such a silly thing, because I will be doing something — my favorite thing to do: metabolize!

Today was a long day. Tomorrow will be worse. Just let me die on the beach.

American Patriotism Is Usually Just Nationalism

American Patriotism Is Usually Just Nationalism
The “Patriot” Who Lives Near Me

I pass by this house a few times a day as I take walks to lower my cholesterol. It’s a sign of what many Americans think of as patriotism but that is really just nationalism. There are two flags there: not nation and state, but nation and local sports team.

Most People Disrespect the Flag

As I go for walks, I’m always amazed at the number of houses that have American flags hang, which are never taken down. Some of them are in tatters. But I’ve gotten used to that. What really interests me are the people who have invested in poles as you can see in the image above.

Now let me be perfectly honest here. At least the owner of this pole takes the whole flag ceremony seriously. They always take the flag(s) down at dusk. This is traditional. Unless a flag has a spotlight it should not, by tradition, fly at night. So I appreciate that they take their flag waving more seriously than the people who put yellow ribbons on the backs of their cars during the Iraq War — as if that meant anything.

Why I Don’t Like Flags: They Are Nationalistic

But I don’t like flying the flag because it strikes me as more nationalism than patriotism. It stinks of “My country, right or wrong!” (I know the original phrase continued, “If right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” But that isn’t what people remember.)

People who care about ideals, which is the core of my patriotism, don’t wave flags, because we know how far we fall short of those ideals.

Who’s Number One? The US or the Warriors?

US and Warriors FlagsBut okay, people like to wave the flag. I wouldn’t have written this article if it hadn’t been for the second flag. It isn’t the flag of California. (It is often the awful Gadsden flag, as if this white homeowner in the suburbs is being treaded upon.) Instead, it is the flag of our local professional basketball team, the Golden State Warriors.

And that strikes me as perfect! Because they have the American flag up in the same way they have the Warrior’s flag up. Just as the roster of the Warriors is constantly changing, so is America. So I assume that if fascists took over the country, they would still be flying the flag proudly. (Actually, they’d probably be flying it more proudly — most people only hate the Nazis because of the Jews; they don’t seem to have much of a clue why fascism is bad beyond that; and if any country were primed for fascism, it is modern America.)

Nation or Sports Team: Whatever!

But this just shows that these people love their country in the same pathetic way that they love their sports teams. In the case of the American flag, it has nothing to do with what the nation stands for. It is like real estate: location, location, location. They have the Warriors’ flag because they are our local team and they have the American flag because they were born here. And that’s as far as it goes.

My friend Will recently saw a house with a Confederate battle flag proudly displayed. We couldn’t find it. But we did come upon a house that had two flag poles side by side: one had the American flag and the other the San Francisco Giants’ — our local baseball team’s — flag. (We think this might have been the same house and that baseball simply trumps their racism. Sorry: “southern pride.”)

US Flags Are Not About Patriotism

I think the American flag is up out of simple habit. They know they are supposed to do that. They are virtue signaling. What’s really in their hearts is the love of seeing the Warriors or the Giants beat teams from other places — teams they would support if they lived there.

Both flags just represent nationalism on different levels. There’s no thought behind it other than that we are the good people and they are the bad. And it’s that kind of non-thinking that got us President Trump. And it’s that kind of non-thinking that is going to turn us into an authoritarian banana republic.

The Statue of Liberty should be weeping.

What the Summit With North Korea Is Really All About

North Korea's Kim Jong-un winning the negotiations with Donald Trump
Kim Jong-un winning the negotiations with Donald Trump.

I’ve cropped this AP picture taken by Evan Vucci and am licensing it under Fair Use because this article is about it and only it. It is a picture of Kim Jong-un doing what his father was unable to do. And he is only able to do it because the American system of government (not the people) elected Donald Trump to be its president.

After Decades, North Korea Gets Just What It Wanted

For decades, North Korea has wanted to talk to the United States alone. And all previous presidents — even the less than brilliant George W Bush — refused to do it.

There are many reasons for this. But probably the biggest is simply that you don’t want to give a third-rate despot the opportunity to look like he is on the same level as the leader of the free world.

Of course, maybe that whole “free world” business is over anyway. Trump seems far more interested in hanging out with authoritarian leaders than democratically elected leaders. Trump seems intent on destroying the carefully constructed post-WWII alliance.

If a Deal Is Reached, It Will Be Bad for the US

If anything comes out of these negotiations other than Kim Jong-un solidifying power in North Korea and looking more powerful everywhere else, it will be a bad deal for the US. Trump will go along with any deal now that he’s BFFs with Kim.

Trump actually said that he would know if Kim Jong-un was serious “within the first minute” of their meeting. Does that remind anyone else of George W Bush’s fatuous claim that he looked in Vladimir Putin’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul”? (Later Bush retracted this because he said Putin had changed; this is what conservatives do; they can’t admit that they’re just stupid.)

I have heard people make apologias for Trump along the lines of, “Well, he has advisers that will make sure everything is done right.” That wasn’t a bad argument to make before the president was Donald J Trump. But anyone who makes that assertion today has to ignore the last year and a half. Trump surrounds himself with yes men and doesn’t even listen to them when they deviate the smallest amount from what he believes or wants to do.

Trump will jump at anything and the Republicans will not stop him because they got their tax cuts and they are terrified of their base voters.

Most Likely, Nothing Will Come of The Negotiations, Because This Was Never About the Negotiations

But more likely, nothing at all will come from this summit. Trump will leave Singapore and say, “I knew in the first minute he wasn’t serious!”

Regardless, this was always about Kim Jong-un getting that picture above. He out-maneuvered Trump in a way that Kim Jong-il couldn’t out-maneuver George W Bush. That is sad.

What Intelligent Person Would Make a Deal With the US Now?

And Kim Jong-un would be an idiot to make a deal with the US anyway. Look at what happened to Muammar Gaddafi! Look what happened to the Iran deal! Look at how Trump treats our longstanding friends!

Making deals with the US is dangerous. Making deals with Trump is madness. I think Kim Jong-un is a psychopath.

But he’s not a madman and certainly not an idiot. Unfortunately for the US, Trump is a madman and an idiot.

They might as well pack their bags. Kim Jong-un got what he wanted. And Trump will get nothing that he wants, except for manic tweets about how dishonest and weak Kim is. Except all the world will know that Kim played Trump for the foolish mark he is.

Afterword

Bruce Cockburn’s song “Yanqui Go Home!” is a great song, but it’s clear that Yanqui didn’t go home, he just went to several more bars:

What Did Shakespeare Mean by “Purple Testament”?

What Did Shakespeare Mean by Purple Testament?
The royal family still likes purple — a lot — they are just more subtle.

If you’ve read me at all, you know of my love-hate relationship with “That Bard” — the broccoli of theater (something you don’t like but think is good for you) — William Shakespeare, or as I like to refer to him, “My Willy.” So I was very interested in a Twilight Zone episode I was watching, which I’ve always liked, called “The Purple Testament.” It’s from Richard II one of That Bard’s better plays, “‘He is come to open the purple testament of bleeding war.” But for the first time I thought, what does that phrase mean?

So I went looking to see if it was a common phrase at the time. Indeed it was not. I guess Willy just thought it sounded good and fit into his blank verse. As with all of Shakespeare, there is so much talking. A lot of people think people spoke that way at the time. No. I’m sure an actual king would have simply said, “He’s come to start a bloody war!”

But the phrase still requires some explanation. He wrote “purple testament” and not something else. The whole line is “the purple testament of bleeding war.” I will give myself at most five minutes to come up with a more understandable line (although truly, I’d rework the line before, which is 12-syllables not 10):

“The bleeding war of his selfish hubris.”

And don’t tell me that isn’t a great line, because his line wasn’t great either. And mine has the advantage of saying what Richard actually means!

What Do The Shake-Scholars Think?

Still, there have been 400 years of Shakespearean scholars (if you include people like Jonson). So some of them must have come up with some good ideas, right? Not so much, no.

In his mid-19th century edition of The Works of William Shakespeare, Howard Staunton wrote:

Stevens believed that testament is here used in its legal sense, but Mr Whiter, in his ingenious Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, quotes a parallel passage from the first part of the old play Jeronimo,

“There I unclasp the purple leaves of war”

and remarks, “Whatever be the direct meaning of the words in question, I am persuaded that the idea of a book with a purple covering suggested this combination to the mind of our poet.”

What Does “Purple Testament” Mean

Well, sure, Shakespeare stole from everyone — all writers did at that time. But it only provides some indication of Shakespeare’s process. It could be reaching but Jeronimo was performed in 1592 at The Rose, when Shakespeare was there.

But all this tells us is a little about the writing process. Why did the Jeronimo writer use “purple leaves”? I don’t know the play. I assume by “purple,” he is referring to autumn. Thus it indicates the lead into war — and thus death. That’s not bad.

A purple testament has no such association. Based on the context, testament doesn’t just refer to a book, it refers to the Bible. Richard is ranting on about how no one likes him but God.

So is Shakespeare implying that Richard will soon lose the favor of God? I think that’s a reasonable reading of the text.

Why Do We Always Have to Help Out Poor Willy Shakespeare?

But here’s the problem: for hundreds of years, people like me — but generally with a far higher opinion of That Bard — have been doing this: assuming that he wasn’t just pulling lines out of his ass that fit. It’s very likely that “purple testament” meant nothing to him or the actors or the theater-goers.

He probably just liked the sound of it. Also, of course, purple is a “royal” color. Queen Elizabeth I (you know, the woman who was queen when Richard III was written) forbade anyone outside the royal family from wearing it. So that was doubtless on Willy’s mind, given what a suck-up he was to royalty.

It’s a good phrase though. It sounds important. But mostly, I think it was meaningless — just five syllables when Shakespeare needed them.

Colin Kaepernick, Roseanne, and the Libertarian Myth

Colin Kaepernick, Roseanne, and the Libertarian MythWhen I was a libertarian, the single biggest philosophical mistake I made was to think that the government was the only cause of the limitation of freedom. This was because the government had the right to jail and kill you. For a long time, I used an argument that I hear from libertarians all the time today: a private company can’t hurt you because you don’t have to work for them and you don’t have to shop with them. These people should really talk to Colin Kaepernick — a man who lost his job for making a respectful protest.

Colin Kaepernick Isn’t Free

When he first protested, he simply sat for the national anthem. But after talking to a Green Beret, Kaepernick choose to take a knee. The reason was the Green Beret told him it was something that soldiers did in front of a fallen soldier’s grave. As the Green Beret put it: “to show respect.”

So taking the knee isn’t to show disrespect to America (not that it should matter). It could just as easily be that the tradition was that we all kneel. But doing something that not everyone else was doing was the whole point of his protest. In the best tradition of the United States, Colin Kaepernick non-violently asked people to think of something during the two minutes of the national anthem.

But that isn’t good enough for a lot of people. It isn’t good enough for pretty much every conservative in this country. And it isn’t okay for a lot of other people too. This is because their idea of patriotism is “America: right or wrong.”

What they are really calling for is what I grew up thinking was all wrong about the Soviet Union: the requirement that everyone must behave the same way. The people weren’t a collection of individuals but simply a thing. Let’s call it the synchronized swimming theory of society: if everyone isn’t doing exactly what the coach wants, it’s all a catastrophe.

The Libertarian Belief in Theoretical Freedom

“Ah!” I hear the libertarians say, “But Colin Kaepernick isn’t being oppressed. He could get another job!” Yeah, he can. But he can’t get a job doing what he has been trained at, working at the level he has attained and wants to perform. And why? Because the owners shut him out. It is exactly the same thing I discussed in Property Rights. In that case, it was an out of work farmer who simply can’t work because all the land to farm is owned by someone else.

One commonly hears libertarians say, “Rights imply responsibility.” But somehow, that’s only ever applied to workers. It isn’t applied to owners. So property rights don’t imply any responsibility on the part of the property owner.

So in the libertarian utopia: you get real freedom if you’re rich, but just theoretical freedom if you aren’t. It’s much like Orwell’s parody of the Soviet Union, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

So Colin Kaepernick is out of a job, but he’s got another, far more important one. And history will show him to be a great man and the owners who clearly colluded to deny him a job they needed filling will be seen for what they are: soulless, immoral people for whom money is all that matters.

And, of course, in 40 years, all conservatives will honor Kaepernick as a great man, as they always do when it doesn’t matter — when there is a new status quo to honor.

(I am so ashamed to be white in this case. It took a whole season for the first white player to take a knee. Since then, there have been more, but it was never more than a small group.)

Another Libertarian Myth

Now we get to another libertarian myth (There are so many!) with the NFL forbidding players from kneeling. It turns out this is flatly illegal. And I suspect the owners know this. But this is all about appeasing President Donald J Trump.

If the courts say that they must allow the players, what can they do? Trump can’t go after them and the vile “America: right or wrong” crowd will know that this horrible two-minute distraction of the time before the most important issue of playing a game can’t be helped.

Of course, this is the opposite of the way things usually go. Normally, even really bad presidents have better things to do than stick their noses into the minutia of how exactly entertainment is managed by the producers of that entertainment. So it is normally the case of owners getting the government to do their bidding.

The “Perfect” Libertarian Courts

The truth is that it really doesn’t matter that the government has a monopoly on going to war and putting people in cages. The rich will always control that government unless safeguards are put in place by the people. But libertarians want to go the other direction. Private courts! Yeah, that will work out great, because the far greater safeguards we have today (you know, the ones that will find for the players against the NFL) won’t be there.

As a result, we see that yet again libertarianism simply turns into “might makes right.” Courts would turn into nothing more than a show to justify finding for whomever gave the bigger pile of cash (or gold — a libertarian fantasy — the same goes for bitcoin).

What About Roseanne?

The cases of Colin Kaepernick and Roseanne Barr could not be more different. Kaepernick was making a dignified protest and was simply not hired through the collusion of NFL owners. Roseanne Barr made her employer look bad and cost them money in the long term.

But that hardly matters. I don’t think Roseanne should have been fired. She is a toxic, unstable person. She was before ABC gave her the show and she is today.

After Robert Downey Jr had his half-decade of drug use and unstable behavior, he had to prove himself. He slowly worked his way back and beyond. But not Roseanne! Her career was all but over. But then she became a Trump supporter and ABC saw big money.

(Truthfully, it never made sense long-term. As I believe I discussed in the comments around here, I figured the show would last about 3 years. By next year, it would only be watched by old people. It would get great ratings, but not great advertisers. It’s like when Jay Leno was beating David Letterman in the ratings: I recall reading at the time that because Letterman had a younger audience, his show made more money. So the Roseanne reboot was just a quick money grab — typical of corporate Hollywood.)

ABC Is Not Acting Morally

ABC acting as though they are taking a moral stand is ridiculous. They knew who they were hiring. They hired exactly the same person they fired.

That wasn’t the case with the people who tentatively hired Downey shortly after he got past his self-destructive period. So ABC isn’t the “good guy” in this case. First, they foisted Roseanne on the nation, then they fired her so that conservatives can have another data point about how mean “liberals” are with all their “political correctness.”[1]

(Yes, we haven’t seen conservatives rally around her; they’re too afraid — they have no idea what she might do next; but trust me, the Republican base thinks she has been completely wronged, that it wasn’t a racist tweet, and that had it been, they would have liked it more.)

Most People Require Jobs

Obviously, Roseanne doesn’t need a job. She didn’t need the reboot of the series, except to get attention and push the false narrative that stuggling middle America just loves Donald Trump. I doubt Colin Kaepernick can go the rest of his life without a job. But none of this is about either of them.

Almost everyone has to have a job. Yet we live in a society where you literally do not have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If you can’t find a job, you can find yourself hungry on the street. Eventually, you can find yourself dead.

Libertarians Want You to Have Less Freedom

Yet for the libertarians, this situation isn’t good enough. Owners of capital should have far more power over your life. They want everyone to give up the little actual liberty they have for theoretical liberty. The only practical liberty in the libertarian utopia is for the rich — like now, but much, much worse.

Freedom is a simple concept. Let me give you a simple example from my life. I don’t have the freedom to get my teeth fixed right now. Hopefully, they will hold out long enough so that I can slowly get them repaired (my dentist is not hopeful that I have enough time). What libertarians offer is potential freedom. I could get all my teeth fixed today if I had $80 million like Roseanne Barr.

Who thinks that is real freedom other than rich people and young people who think they will be rich?

Freedom is not the freedom to maybe get a job you would have had you not taken a brave political stand. Freedom isn’t even losing your job for being exactly the person your employer knew you were when they hired you.

How Capitalism Makes Things Worse

I know how capitalism apologists will respond. “If it weren’t for our system, we wouldn’t have smartphones and we would live under authoritarian rule.” Really? Is that how limited their creativity is? The truth is, the world would be a better place if I had the freedom to do what I want. Humans want to work; they want to be productive; they want to make society better. (Obviously, not all humans, but most humans.)

But instead, they are forced into jobs where they sell crap that people don’t need or even want. If it weren’t for capitalism, there would be no opioid crisis in this country. I noted two decades ago that there would be problems with Oxycontin and MS-Contin because they relieved pain for substantially less time than advertised and would thus cause people to take more and eventually turn to the black market.

Doctors could have prescribed methadone, which works really well. But it wasn’t under patent. There wasn’t a bunch of money to be made off it. So it wasn’t pushed on doctors as the miracle drug it is. Instead, a toxic jumble of chemicals made to slowly release a short-acting opioid was. And today we have a big problem.

That’s Capitalism!

That’s what capitalism produces: not what we need but what makes certain people rich. But in the libertarian utopia, that would never happen.

I’m serious.

The libertarian utopia would quickly devolve into the Mad Max world. Then some vile warlord would become dominant, and we would all live under an authoritarian dictatorship. Good luck with that cold turkey detox white people. And thank you libertarians!

Afterword

One final thought about Roseanne. This is yet another example of a racist society trying to scapegoat one person for what they say so as to ignore the much more important racism that people of color live with every day. Roseanne hurt almost no one with her tweet. And she certainly didn’t kill anyone. But our racist society kills people all the time. So the racism that most hurts us is just ignored (Colin Kaepernick) while we make a big deal about the racism of a crazy woman that doesn’t mean squat in the grand scheme of things.

Indeed, scapegoating Roseanne helps racism, because it makes tens of millions of white people think that as long as you don’t say the wrong words or imply the wrong things, America is a total meritocracy where any black kid can become president. It’s like saying we have an equal chance to win a game of Monopoly despite starting the game after every piece of property has already been purchased. It’s hogwash. Remember all the conservatives saying that Obama’s election was proof that there was no racism in America? That is the racism that never gets anyone fired; it is the racism we need to fight.

Why Roseanne Matters

The only reason Roseanne’s racism toward blacks is interesting is that she says what roughly 40 percent of the country believes. And most of the rest of us are just less racist (including roughly half of blacks — society poisons widely).


[1] I put “political correctness” in scare quotes because it is a meaningless term. What it is supposed to mean is done by everyone — and as far as I can tell, much more by conservatives. The whole “you must stand for the national anthem” is a typical case of political correctness. But it is almost never applied to conservatives.

History Western Classical Music (With Examples!)

This article is based on a series of Morning Music posts. It’s a work in progress because I only made it to the beginning of the Classical Period. (Yes, Classical music has a Classical Period — and it’s fairly short.)

Gaudeamus omnesJim Holt’s book, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, is a really fun book. In my discussion of the book, I highlighted a joke from the 15th century. It doesn’t even seem like a joke, because most of it is spent explaining to the listener why it is funny. As a result, it’s important to understand just how much art changes over time. A joke that we find funny today would make no sense to someone who lived a thousand years ago.

I am going through the history of what we call Classical music. It is a particular kind of music that really represents what the elites of Europe have listened to. As a result, for nearly the first millennium — dating back to about 1000 CE — it was exclusively religious. But even through the Baroque period (1600–1750), most of the major composers had some relation to the church.

The Medieval Period: Get Your Chant On

We are going to start with the Medieval period because, frankly, there wasn’t much that changed before that. For what we would call Classical music, this remained supreme and largely unchanged for 500 years.

So that means we are going to listen to a Gregorian chant. When learning music theory in an American college, you always start with these chants. They are incredibly formal in their melodies. They have as simple a rhythm as you can get. And they have no harmony whatsoever (unless you consider unison harmony, which I guess it technically is, but really). Yet they do have a simple beauty. And they are often hypnotic. You can well imagine someone going into a trance during one — having a religious vision.

Thus we listen to “Gaudeamus Omnes” (Let Us All). I don’t present it as something you are going to love. But this piece is meant to work the same way a film history class works — allowing you to see how the art form evolves over time.

Josquin des Prez Gets Funky

Josquin des PrezNext in our exploration of classical music, we get to the Renaissance period. This is a hard one because it is when sacred and secular music diverge. The main importance of the secular music for our purposes is that it introduces instruments. Up to this time, all the music was sung. But the secular music tends to lead us more in the direction of the folk music tradition. So forgive me for staying with the sacred for a while more.

There are many new things here. The main innovations at this point are that the music becomes polyphonic and somewhat rhythmic. No longer is a melody just sung in unison with quarter notes. What’s more, this is the time that fugue-like structures find their way into the music. You hear this quite often in motets — where different people are singing the same thing but at different times. If you want a simple example, think of a group singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” — but actually beautiful to hear. It is formal without being rigid — or at least it is when created by a great composer.

Here, we are going to listen to a piece by Josquin des Prez — one of the greatest of the Renaissance composers. This is the motet “Ave Maria … Virgo Serena.” It is performed by Schola Antiqua of Chicago and it is gorgeous. But I think this fact is easy to miss if you listen to it relative to modern music of almost any kind — since the polyphonic innovations have been so thoroughly integrated into our musical language.

Claudio Monteverdi and His “Tiny” Revolution

Claudio MonteverdiNow we look at the early Baroque period. This is the period where counterpoint just goes crazy. This is where two or more musical lines work together to create a greater harmonic whole. Probably the best representation of this is the string quartet, which won’t really come into its all until the Classical period — although it certainly existed long before that and continues to be one of the great forms of classical music.

The man most associated with the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music is the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. He fused the kind of polyphony that we heard from Josquin with a style of composition called the basso continuo. In it, the melody and the bass line are provided, and an indication of the kind of harmony, but not the actual notes. The performer was then expected to improvise the rest.

Actually, many of the great classical musicians into the Romantic period were known to be excellent improvisers. So those who think someone like Antonio Salieri[1] was a boring fellow are quite wrong; he was the McCoy Tyner of his day!

We are going to listen to a madrigal from 1619, “Chiome d’Oro, Bel Tesoro” (Golden head of hair, beautiful treasure). You can definitely hear the transition here. For one thing, now we have voices and instruments together. Also: the different musical lines are working in the service of the harmonic structure. This was originally written for two voices, two violins, and a basso continuo. You can well imagine just how revolutionary this music must have sounded to the people of the early 17th century. And here it is beautifully fleshed out by Voices of Music:

Barbara Strozzi: Attack of the 50 ft Baroque Woman

Barbara StrozziAlmost every Baroque composer you’ve heard of is from the late period. There is a strong urge on my part just to skip right to them. But the middle period is really important. Because of the establishment of absolute monarchies throughout Europe, “court” music was developing. This created a great deal more sharing of music geographically. And so composers like Johann Jakob Froberger became really important in spreading different ideas all around the continent. (But we won’t listen to anything by him because most of the stuff online is harpsichord music — which I’m just not that fond of.)

This is the period when Baroque becomes more austere. There’s something almost romantic about the Renaissance and early Baroque music. But now it becomes intricate and exact. At its worst, it is overly intellectual. At its best, it is deeply affecting without pandering.

One of the greatest composers — almost certainly the greatest of secular vocal music (including the librettos, which are said to be excellent) of this period was a woman, Barbara Strozzi. She was also a great singer. Not only was she a woman in a time when they didn’t do this thing much, she was illegitimate. Yet she dominated the period. And look at the painting — she’s quite young and already has the look that she doesn’t take shit from anyone.

She is typical of the work that is breaking away from the early Baroque period. Notice in the following cantata, “Che Si Puo Fare” (What Can Be Done), the melodic development, which sounds distinctly classical at times. At the same time, the harmonic structure is still very much like what we heard from Claudio Monteverdi:

Dieterich Buxtehude: Let the Harmony Begin!

Dieterich BuxtehudeNow we get to the end of the middle part of the Baroque period. I’m going to focus on Dieterich Buxtehude.

He was a well known organist in his time, and so he wrote a lot for the organ. But he also wrote a great deal of vocal music. This is not surprising, as the middle Baroque period was when music and words first came together as equals. But for some reason, his vocal work doesn’t seem to have been terribly popular in his own lifetime.

What we are going to listen to now is Membra Jesu Nostri (The Limbs of our Jesus) — a cycle of seven cantatas. The main thing to notice about it is the very modern harmonic structure. This is kind of an inflection point in music from melodies creating harmonies to harmonies creating melodies. It is what allows us to know with such certainty that a piece of music is finished: because it has a harmonic denouement — as surely as a Greek tragedy.

Vivaldi: So Great One Name Is Enough

Antonio VivaldiThere are really two titans of the late Baroque period: Bach and Vivaldi — two men so great, they only need one name. They were quite distinct, even if they both fully sum up the period. Bach is more focused on counterpoint. And it can, at times, be overwhelming. Vivaldi does get into excessive counterpoint at times, but it isn’t actually his thing. Vivaldi is more free flowing. But Bach, in his formalism pushed in some surprisingly modern directions. Above all, both composers are similar but distinct.

In general, my favorite is Vivaldi. That dates back to when I played flute. Vivaldi understood how to write for the flute. Playing pieces by Bach always felt like I was playing something that was actually meant for the violin. Vivaldi knew that flutists had to breath from time to time. But I also think that Vivaldi understood the character of the instrument better. That is not to say that Bach didn’t write some of the greatest flute music ever — he did.

Bach and Vivaldi Similarities

One thing that both composers pushed was the use of solo instruments. Up to this point, most music had been predominately ensemble.

What’s more, the forms became longer — that was especially true of Bach, who often got lost in his own compositions. But ultimately, I don’t think you can point to a better piece as the height of the Baroque period than Vivalidi’s Four Seasons. It is actually not a single piece, of course; it is four violin concertos. But they are beautiful, and unlike almost everything else in my life, I do not get tired of listening to them. Here they are performed by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta with the great (there are a lot of great violinists in the world) Janine Jansen at the International Chamber Music Festival in 2014. (I was going to present Antal Zalai’s better performance of it, but the audience applauding between each movement drove me crazy.)

Interestingly, after their deaths, both Bach and Vivaldi fell out of favor. They were considered old fashioned. Bach came to be admired in a way he was not during his life in the 19th century. Vivaldi was not rediscovered until the 20th century. And that is probably why Bach has a bigger reputation.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Classical Period Begins

Carl Philipp Emanuel BachThe Classical period of music started in 1750, and I am going to stop just as we reach it.

It’s interesting, though, that we call the kind of music we have been listening to as “classical music,” when most of what people think of as classical music is, in fact, from the Romantic period. In general, my favorite period of music is the Classic period because it spans a divide: not so intellectual as the Baroque period and not so emotional as the Romantic period. (Interestingly, when I take the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, my thinking and feeling functions are about equal, so that might be why I like the Classical period.) I’m also really fond of early 20th century music, but that will have to wait for later.

Galant Music

Now I want to look at what is called Galant music. It represented a turn away from the excessive complexity that had come to dominate the Baroque period. It also represented the big shift toward the solo instrument. And so we are going to listen to one of the great theorists and composers of this this period, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach — one of the sons of the Bach. He was not only influenced by his father, but also his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, who was himself part of galant style — although more as a follower than an innovator.

We are going to listen to Trio Sonata in B-Flat Major, dating from 1843 — when Bach was 29 years old. It is for flute, violin, and bass. But as you will see in the following performance, the bass part has been fully realized for the piano. I’m very struck by this flutist, Sofia Lubyantseva, who is very good. Note the clarity of the lead instruments, the simplicity of the harmonic structure, the directness of the melody. It also has lots of clear legacy material. For instance, it is largely a very clever fugue. Even though this piece was written before it had started, it signals that the Classical period had begun.

Afterword

Here are all the videos put together in a single playlist:


[1] If you read that article (and you should), you will note that it says historians have uncovered no animosity between Salieri and Mozart. That’s not exactly true. As the article points out, if there was any animosity between the men, it was all on Mozart’s part. Mozart did complain in one or two letters about Salieri. But it’s clear that this was just a younger, less-established musician with a chip on his shoulder. I’m sure as his career improved, all that was forgotten.

Unlike portrayed in Amadeus, Mozart’s career steadily improved. Had he lived another decade he probably would have been a rich man. He got the reputation of being terribly poor because his father (a truly vile man) had taught him to never owe money to someone for very long. So he would borrow money from one person. Then borrow money from another to pay the first person. And on and on. And remember at that time, people lived on credit far more than they do now, because money would normally come in chunks. Cervantes (early, but still) was a tax collector for the Spanish king and had to pay all his own expenses and waited as long as 3 years between payments.