Mesocosm

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Light is Calling

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Watch and listen to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon:

Written by Mesocosm

August 2, 2018 at 5:32 am

Posted in Music

Leipzig Bach Fest, 2018

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thomas2This past weekend kicked off the Leipzig Bachfest 2018, which features performances of dozens of major works by Bach and other one-time Leipzig residents Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. Many of the concerts were performed at historic venues, including the churches where Bach premiered the bulk of his sacred music, and the Mendelsssohn House, where that composer lived until his death in 1847.

Leipzig is a beautiful and storied city south and west of Berlin in the federal state of Saxony. Situated at the crossroads of important trade routes, Leipzig boasts centuries of prosperous Bürgerlich culture and a fine university – Germany’s second oldest, founded in 1409.  This is where the young Goethe studied law – at least, when he wasn’t carousing at Auerbach’s Keller, a local tavern that he praised for its excellent wines and used as a setting for an episode of Faust:

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Mephisto:
Above all else, it seems to me,
You need some jolly company
To see life can be fun – to say the least:
The people here make every day a feast.
With little wit and boisterous noise,
They dance and circle in their narrow trails
Like kittens playing with their tails.
When hangovers don’t vex these boys,
And while their credits holding out,
They have no cares and drink and shout.
(trans. Walter Kaufmann)

The establishment is still running today, though it’s now more of a high-end tourist trap than Bohemian student waren. 

Johann Sebastian Bach lived and worked for 27 years in Leipzig, where he wrote music for several churches, including the two large Protestant churches that still flank the east and west ends of the Old City: the Nikolaikirche in the east, and the Thomaskirche in the west.

bach

I had an incredible opportunity to hear my two favorite Bach ensembles perform cantata concerts in the “Cantata Ring” ten-concert series: Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan at the Thomaskirche, and John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir at the Nikolaikirche.

The Thomaskirche is a beautiful late-Gothic-style building with a superficial exterior resemblance to Chartres. The interior is fairly sparse in traditional Protestant mode, with minimal decoration that could seduce the heart to an impure love of beauty. The Master himself is interred in the choir.

Mrs. O’Cosm and I sat toward the rear of the nave, while the Bach Collegium Japan performed in a balcony directly above and about 10 meters behind us. It was an interesting effect, hearing the music without being able to see the musicians – I was reminded a bit of Freudian therapy where the therapist is to be seated behind the patient and out of their field of view.

I wonder if this is how music would have been performed during services in Bach’s time. The invisibility of the performers highlighted the liturgical and sacramental qualities of the music.

I also experienced the invisibility of the performers as an extension of the ego-decentering effect I have often felt listening to Renaissance and Baroque polyphonic music. In contrast to the classical and Romantic ideals of virtuosity, with their emphasis on concerto soloists and coloratura arias, Bach’s music presupposes constant virtuosity by all musicians and singers, who are rarely singled out or brought into individual focus. Instead of the individualistic classical and Romantic celebration of the musician as a Promethean hero-creator, the complex, shimmering weave of polyphonic sacred music evokes a distributed, patterned, cosmological order, and immerses the listener within it.

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Thomaskirche

One intriguing component of the Bachfest Canata Cycle was that the appropriate Bible readings were read aloud before each piece was performed, which illuminated the ways the texts commented on the liturgy as a kind of musical sermon.

The acoustics in the Thomaskirche were echoey with fair amount of reverb – not like what you would get at Notre Dame in Paris, but there was a noticeable blending that was different from the clear, crisp disambiguation of voices you would hear in a studio mix.

The Bach Collegium Japan performed with their customary virtuosity, clarity, and beauty. For years their recordings of Bach’s cantatas have served as my standard edition – for my tastes, they are simply perfect. Melodic lines rendered smoothly, untroubled by the anachronistic ornamentation of vibrato and rubato that sometimes bog down Bach interpreters like Otto von Klemperer. In my mind such an approach is wholly unsuited to Baroque polyphony. Give me clarity of line, and save the throbbing vibrato for Mahler.

The Monteverdi Choir concert I attended in the NIkolaikirche was the final concert of the ten-concert Cantata Ring, and, as principle organizer of the cycle, Gardiner saved for himself the best for last. In his selection, he took the audience on a splendidly-conceived journey, opening with two dark, chromatic cantatas that plumb the depths of spiritual anguish and uncertainty.

The first piece, “Es erhaub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19) (follow link for Ton Koopman’s interpretation), followed a weekly reading from Revelation describing Saint Michael’s defeat of the celestial dragon in the war of heaven (Rev 12, 7-12):

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

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Nikolaikirche

The cantata beings with a thrilling chorus depicting the battle in heaven with a densely-saturated tableau of melismatic agitation. It resolves into simpler lines, but uses chords built from disquieting, sour intervals that would sound perfectly at home in a work of Carlo Gesualdo. The battle of heaven is thereby internalized into inward spiritual distress. 

My favorite moment of this piece was the moving tenor aria “Bleibt, ihr Engel, bleibt bei mir,” in which a disconsolate singer calls to the angel to remain by his side.

The mood of the concert gradually ascended, like Dante in the Comedia, from the depths of despair to the heights of spiritual exultation, concluding with the jubilant “Wachtet Auf, Ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140) (follow link for a recording of Gardiner’s interpretation). One of the the unquestionable highlights of the concert was the gorgeous soprano/bass aria “Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?”, a dialog between spirit and Christ in which the spirit, evoking the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins, longs for salvation:

Seele: Wenn kommst du, mein Heil?
Jesus: Ich komme, dein Teil.
Seele: Ich warte mit brennendem Öle.

Soul: When are you coming, my salvation?
Jesus: I am coming, your portion.
Soul: I wait with burning oil.

nikolai

The drama of this duet is unsurpassed in Bach’s oeuvre.

The concluding “Gloria sei dir gesungen” is a splendid apotheosis of harmonization – a sonic image of the realization of Jerusalem and the reunion between the sinful soul and the loving father. 

The Nikolaikriche was a bit muddier in its acoustics than the Thomaskirche, but the interior is rather lovelier, done out in a gorgeous, gentle pastel botanical motif with the columns flowering in the upper reaches. It may be the most beautiful Protestant church I’ve ever been in.

It also has powerful contemporary resonance in the global story of nonviolence, having served as the epicenter for peaceful candlelight vigils calling for an end to Communist rule in the late 1980s. These demonstrations are now remembered as some of the pivotal events that led to to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Reunification.

The Monteverdi Choir performed to perfection. The setting and selection of compelling and dramatic top-tier works from Bach’s legacy combined to provide one of the finest evening’s of music I’ve been able to attend.

Written by Mesocosm

June 12, 2018 at 1:41 am

Posted in Music, Reviews

Totentanz, the Dance of Death

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Great is the matter of birth and death
Time is fleeting, gone, gone
Awake! Awake! Each one!
Don’t waste this life!

This short poem is written on a wooden plank at the San Francisco Zen Center called a han, which is struck by a mallet to call the monks to meditation. It echoes a common call made by masters of many traditions to recollect death as a way of disentangling the mind from its usual attitude of immersion in the minutiae of day-to-day struggle and gratification, so we can see our lives, if only briefly, from a loftier perspective.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that it is ironic, that while death destroys us, the knowledge of death saves us. Tsong Khapa wrote in a similar vein that the source of all suffering is the belief “I will not die today.”

In Europe of the High Middle Ages, the recollection of death was called forth with great power by the Totentanz, or Dance of Death. Often depicted in sweeping murals, the Dance illustrates the grisly specter of death in a pas de deux with people of all walks of life, from the highest emperor to the lowliest peasant. The message is as simple and direct as it is profound – the time of death comes to all, rich or poor, great or small.

toten

Many individual scenes are deeply affecting, such as this frame from a Totentanz I saw in the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Switzerland. It’s a moving touch, seeing how the child holds to the hem of his mother’s gown, not wanting to go.

Hans Holbein created one of the great exemplars of the Dance of Death in a series of woodblock prints, which you can browse here. Many of them have great expressive and dramatic impact – some of my favorites are the nobleman, the rich man, and the abbess.

Holbein’s collection has recently been published in a very fine Penguin Classics edition with a commentary by Ulinka Rublack, which I highly recommend.

One of my favorite contemporary composers, Thomas Adès, recently wrote an  oratorio called Totentanz based on this motif. For the libretto, he takes a modern German translation of a fifteenth-century poem that accompanied the great Totentanz engraved in the Lübeck cathedral. If you’re curious you can find the original early German poem here, and you’ll find the modern libretto in the program notes of the performance I saw a few weeks ago here.

It opens roughly thus:

The Preacher: Oh upright creature, whether poor or rich,
See now the play, young and old alike,
And think you all upon it;
that none can live forever.

Death: To this dance I summon all,
Pope, emperor, monk, and peasant!
If I come, great or small,
No grief will avail you.
Always remember to do good works
To absolve your sins.
You must leap to my piping tune!

Adès’s oratorio is an extraordinary achievement, and a compelling modern take on the age-old motif. It is a work of uncommon artistic power and profundity, and it’s well worth exploring, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear it performed live.

This motif always reminds me of the early English folksong Lyke-Wake Dirge:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.
And Christe receive thy saule….

Check out this deeply uncanny rendition:

Written by Mesocosm

May 8, 2018 at 1:40 am

Posted in Music, Reviews

Anthrocene

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All the fine winds gone
And this sweet world is so much older
Animals pull the night around their shoulders
Flowers fall to their naked knees
Here I come now, here I come
I hear you been out there looking for something to love
The dark force that shifts at the edge of the tree
It’s alright, it’s alright
When you turn so long and lovely, it’s hard to believe
That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene

Sit down beside me and I’ll name it for you
Behold, behold
The heaven bound sea
The wind cast its shadow and moves for the tree
Behold the animals and the birds and the sky entire
I hear you been out there looking for something to set on fire
The head bow children fall to their knees
Humbled in the age of the Anthrocene
– Nick Cave

Abend über Potsdam (detail), Lotte Laserstein

Abend über Potsdam (detail), Lotte Laserstein

Written by Mesocosm

November 9, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Music

52:09 Jesus Alone: Nick Cave’s Lamentation

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By general agreement, this has been a difficult year. In the United States, the public mood is stoked to the point of conflagration by the ceaseless cacophony of toxic and increasingly unbearable public discourse surrounding our presidential election. Conflict in the Middle East spirals out of control, driving millions of refugees into an unprepared Europe, with the shock withdrawal of the UK from the EU as one result, and a series of grisly terrorist attacks another.

In these bitter times, it’s perhaps all the more striking that three of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century have offered uncanny and profound meditations on mortality in the most personal terms: Leonard Cohen with You Want it Darker, David Bowie with Black Star, and Nick Cave with the gut-wrenching Skeleton Tree.

It is the latter album that concerns me in this post, and particularly the opening song “Jesus Alone,” which I find to be one of the most beautiful songs that artist has created, despite its deep wellspring of darkness. This song in particular represents the working-through of the terrible loss of Cave’s son Arthur, who died last year in a tragic accident at the age of fifteen.

The opening words cloak the events in a cloud of images, evoking Arthur’s fall from a seaside cliff in Ovingdean Gap:

You fell from the sky
Crash landed in a field
Near the river Adur
Flowers spring from the ground
Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers
In a hole beneath the bridge
She convalesce, she fashioned masks of clay and twigs
You cried beneath the dripping trees
Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid

With my voice
I am calling you

I’ve rarely heard Jesus evoked with such power as the bestower of mercy upon lost and grieving hearts.

John Yeats, painter, and father of the great Irish poet William Butler, once said that a work of art is the public act of a solitary man. In Skeleton Tree, Cave has gone into the most solitary darkness of his grief and wrestled out of it an experience that explodes with light and feeling. He has pushed his entire creative idiom into new reaches with a deeply affecting new use of music, which unobtrusively conveys the emotional landscape in which his thoughts and prayers have been articulated. I don’t know if any musician since Wagner has expressed the agony of Schopenhauer’s blind, tormented will with such immediacy.

That Nick Cave is an artist of the deepest religious sensitivity has been evident for many years – no one, for example, who heard “Patripassian,” his collaboration with Current 93, could doubt it.

Skeleton Tree is one of the great works of elegy of modern times. It puts me in mind of another masterpiece of the genre, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy. I leave you with a few stanzas from “Gone”, from that splendid volume:

And now in spite of sorrow unending, the sky is more
Beautiful than it’s ever been.
Blue and night-blue above a string of pale April yellow
Which stands in for incandescent clarity,
Which is heard as if only.

And then not like a dropped curtain
But evening dark and darker
Until a hand is no longer a hand
And yellow goes green-yellow, then narrows to nothing.
And pace is everything. The slow effacement

Of the window through which she looks
And the mirror as far as away
Now as a star and we are
Both gone. Both from each other
And from the myth we were.

Crucifix, Reichstag Prayer Room, Günther Uecker

Crucifix, Reichstag Prayer Room, Günther Uecker

Written by Mesocosm

October 29, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Posted in Music

Concord Symphony

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One of my favorite pieces of twentieth-century music is the Concord Symphony, Henry Brant’s orchestral arrangement of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. Brant spent over twenty years bringing the work for solo piano to the orchestra, and it is so persuasive – so fully articulate and rich – it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t initially conceived on such a large scale. But that’s Ives for you – he expresses a symphony’s worth of ideas on a piano.

Listening to it today, I fell into the awareness that the development of musical ideas has such an evident developmental logic, it feels like a mirror of the way my thoughts arrange themselves as I’m ruminating on an interesting diversion or daydream. It’s a fascinating thing to encounter something like the form of abstraction expressed musically, with all the emotional echoes and resonances of an interior monolog, but with no explicit content.

I especially like the periodic appearance of the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth, and the elaboration and development of that theme, like a ghost haunting the history of music. It reminds me of the parody masses of the Renaissance which build enormous polyphonic works as elaborations on a single melody, often derived from popular songs.

All credit to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony for promoting this wonderful piece.

Written by Mesocosm

July 4, 2016 at 9:40 am

Posted in Music

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Arnold Schoenberg

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My first exposure to Schoenberg’s music was Glenn Gould’s performance of the gigue from opus 25 “Suite for Piano” – you can hear it for yourself in the YouTube link to the right. I hope that you will – I’ll wait until you have a chance.

A lot of complete nonsense has been written about Schoenberg’s music, often implying that it embodies an anarchic spirit of modernist rebellion. Some even accuse Schoenberg and his followers of rejecting the very foundations of western music in favor of novel patterns of sound that are not even properly called “musical.”

In truth, Schoenberg was concerned with the history of European composition and theory to a degree seldom found in composers. The care that he took to organize musical ideas is easily discernible in the Gould performances, thanks to the pianist’s miraculous capacity to differentiate and clarify independent voices within compositions.

Certainly, Schoenberg formal interests have little to do with the dramatic principles of tension and release that dominated the western idiom since Haydn. Instead, he is concerned with the melodic and harmonic development of motifs, and in this sense, his work constitutes not a rejection of traditional forms, but a return to the strategies that preoccupied composers from the birth of polyphony in the High Middle Ages all the way down to the classical period. Indeed, Schoenberg reminds me of no composer so much as Bach, with his keen architectonic attention and melodic inventiveness.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique is based on constructing a fixed melodic sequence called a “row” out of all twelve notes of the chromatic series. He then uses the row as the basis for a piece of music, perhaps deploying it as the principle theme, or varying it in countless ways.

This approach resembles the strategies used by all Renaissance polyphonic composers to construct melodic lines based on variations of principle themes, with their inversions, crab or puzzle canons, and fugues. One is particularly reminded of “parody masses,” a common form of composition based on melodies lifted from popular songs. The secular song “L’homme armé” alone was used as the basis for hundreds of masses.

The groundwork for Schoenberg’s compositional theory was laid decades before he began his work. Wagner’s Ring was far too long to be persuasively organized by alternations of dissonance and resolution, so it was stitched together by melodic motives, or recurring melodic figures that he associated with ideas from the libretto. Brahms relied on motives as a framework for instrumental writing in some of his symphonies, and Mahler experimented with progressive tonality, by which his symphonies might conclude in a key unrelated to the tonic.

Schoenberg was precisely the opposite of an anarchist – he was an architect of a very high order, and knew exactly what he was doing, and how he stood in relationship to musical history. He once wrote:

I used to say, ‘Bach is the first composer with twelve tones.’ This was a joke, of course. I did not even know whether somebody before him might have deserved this title. But the truth on which this statement is based is that the Fugue No. 24 of the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, in B minor, begins with a Dux in which all twelve tones appear. (1)

Have a listen to that fugue (again played by Glenn Gould) in the YouTube player to the right, and see if you can note the deep similarities to the gigue we heard before. Both of them are principally organized by parallel melodic progressions that are organized in harmonic relationships such that their simultaneous occurrence with other melodic lines contributes to the overall effect. Both of them are highly chromatic. What, then, is the difference between them?

Schoenberg’s work abound with more dissonant intervals, perhaps, but then, he argued that our perception of dissonance is largely a matter of familiarity.

Now, there will always be those who respond to this argument by maintaining that there is a natural basis for our perception of consonant musical intervals based on simple integer ratios between string length. You can expect to hear the names of Pythagoras, Boethius, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

This argument is persuasive at a glance, but the diabolus in musica is in the details. It turns out that constructing a musical scale requires substantial modifications of the great Platonic order simply to produce an instrument capable of playing in multiple keys.

And can anyone really argue that dissonant relationships are intrinsically disturbing at this late date? The most dissonant interval playable on a piano is the augmented fourth, and this interval occurs in dominant seventh chords. A malignant dominant seventh might have sent a medieval chorister fleeing from the room in terror, but the Beatles use it in “I Saw Her Standing There,” for heaven’s sake, which is not exactly the stuff of modernism.

Charles Rosen argued in his study of Schoenberg that people are not really disturbed by the nominally dissonant intervals in serialist music, but by the lack of cadence (2). Listeners lack familiar cues that help them predict the flow of a musical passage, and they find it disturbing.

For my own tastes, I find serialism to be most disturbing when orchestral works leap repeatedly from whisper-quiet string segments to sudden explosions of honking brass. I don’t go in for these shenanigans, myself – I regard it as a cheap tactic. Yes, it produces an effect, much as shouting at someone all of a sudden gets their attention.

But anyone who believes that serialist music must be unlovely should really spend some time with Berg’s violin concerto, which may well be the finest concerto written in the entire twentieth century.

I hope to return to this topic at a later date to explore some interesting related issues, including the biography of Arnold Schoenberg, which, if it were presented as a work of fiction, would be rejected as too fantastic to be believed. It’s also worth exploring other techniques for composing outside of classical tonality, such as those employed by Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen, two of the greatest composers of the last century.

Correction
Thanks to DJ for pointing out that the augmented fourth is found in the dominant seven, not the major seven chord.

References
1) Schoenberg A. “Bach (1950).” from Style and Idea; Selected Writings. University of California Press. 1975. pg. 393.
2) Rosen C. Arnold Schoenberg. Princeton University Press. 1975.

Written by Mesocosm

March 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

Posted in Music

Tagged with , ,

Rings of Power: Wagner and Tolkien

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Siegfried Slaying the Dragon

Siegfried Slaying the Dragon

When the Swedish writer Ake Ohlmark suggested that the Ring of Power in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings bears a certain resemblance to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, Tolkien impatiently replied that “Both rings are round, and there the resemblance ceases.” (1)

Within Tolkien’s correspondence and notes, this is the only direct reference to the Nibelungen Ring that I’ve been able to find. This is perplexing, given how obvious it is that Wagner exerted an immense influence over Tolkien’s creative work.

Perhaps this is a case of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence; in which an artist goes to great lengths to disavow an obviously-influential predecessor, such as when Freud claimed that he never read Nietzsche. Or perhaps, as a friend of mine suggested recently, when it comes to an artist like Wagner, acknowledging influence is sometimes impossible, because their conception is too vast, and any artist would drown in it.

Whatever the case may be, many of the important characters, themes, and episodes in Tolkien’s trilogy have close counterparts in Wagner’s cycle. In what follows, I’d like to excavate some of these instances by comparing motifs from both works. There will be many spoilers.

The most obvious point of comparison between Lord of the Rings and the Nibelungen Ring is that both works feature magical rings, and, contrary to Tolkien’s objections, the two rings are identical in nearly every way.

Both rings are powerful magical artifacts associated with command and control, forged by demonic beings who renounce love in favor of hate, anger and dominion. Both excite an ungovernable lust in people to possess and wield the ring, which acts as a profoundly corrupting force that incites fratricide or its equivalent, bringing heroes to conflict and moral crisis. The struggle for possession of both rings sets in motion the central actions of the plots, leading to a titanic conflict and shift of the world-age.

It is sometimes pointed out by Tolkien’s defenders that he utilized many of the same sources as Wagner, and, as a philologist with a genuine command of the languages in question, he frequently knew them better than Wagner did. For example, both artists made extensive use of medieval German and Icelandic sagas and legends, such as the Eddas, the Volsung Saga, and the Nibelungenlied.

However, the Ring of Power is purely a creation of Wagner’s imagination. As Deryck Cooke wrote in I Saw the World End, a key work of Wagner scholarship:

The whole importance of gold in Wagner’s work, of course, is its potentiality for being made into a ring conferring absolute world-power; and again, this element is absent from the mythology…. [T]he power of Wagner’s ring is ultimately the power of the ring of the Scandinavian sources to multiply wealth; but in making this power an absolute dominion over the world, he added a crucial element of his own, which these sources do not contain. Nor do the German sources contain it: a ring of this kind is entirely absent from the Nibelung hoard. (2) [emphasis added]

Although various enchanted rings exist in the old mythology, the Ring of Power as a tool and symbol of dominion is Wagner’s invention.

Fafner and Fasolt

Fafner and Fasolt

In Scene 4 of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the brothers Fafner and Fasolt, under the spell of the ring’s corrupting power, abruptly turn on one another:

Fasolt: (hurls himself upon Fafner, who has been busily packing away.) Stand back, you robber! Mine is the ring; I won it for Freia’s glance! (He snatches hastily at the ring. They struggle)

Fafner: Off with your hands! The ring is mine! (Fasold wrests the ring from Fafner.)

Fasolt: I have it, I shall keep it!

Fafner: (striking out with his staff) Hold it fast, else it may fall! (He fells Fasolt with a single blow and then wrenches the ring from the dying giant.) (3)

Compare to Gandalf’s account in Fellowship of the Ring:

‘”Give us that [ring], Déagol, my love,” said Sméagol, over his friend’s shoulder.

‘”Why?’ said Déagol.

‘”Because it’s my birthday, my love, and I wants it,” said Sméagol.

‘”I don’t care,” said Déagol. “I have already given you a present already, more than I could afford. I found it, and I”m going to keep it.”

‘”Oh, are you indeed, my love,” said Sméagol, and caught Déagol by the throat, and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. (4)

Like Wagner’s cycle, Tolkien’s story depicts a ring that inflames lust for ownership. Once under its spell, owners of the ring will never willingly give it up, and, should they lose it, they become obsessed with its recovery. Like the dwarf Alberich, Gollum conspires secretly and treacherously to win it back from the hero who has taken it.

Like Biblo and Frodo Baggins, Siegfried is shielded from the dark power of the ring by his innocence. Alberich observes “But [Siegfried] that boldest of heroes is safe from my curse; for he knows not the might of the ring; he makes no use of its magical power.” [283]

Both rings were forged by sinister beings who renounce love in favor of mastery and dominion. Both stories end with the rings being unmade. The Ring of Power is cast into the lava of Mount Doom, where it was forged; the Nibelungen Ring is cast back into the Rhine, from whence its enchanted gold was stolen. The return of each ring to its source touches off a cataclysmic eruption.

There are too many additional points of similarity to be cataloged, so I will only briefly review some of the most obvious.

Smaug will remind any Wagner fan of Fafner, who takes the form of a dragon and sleeps in a cave atop his pile of magic treasure. The slaying of both dragons is tied to crucial advice given to the hero by a bird, whose song can be understood.

Wotan

Wotan

“As ‘Wanderer’ am I known to the world, wide have I fared, and far have I traveled over the earth’s broad back,” says Wotan in Siegfried. Gandalf’s “gray pilgrim” is exceedingly similar. Like Wotan, he is viewed warily by provincial folk, who may greet him as Mime greets Wotan, with the words “Ill fortune dwells with me already; why do you add to it?” We hear the echo of Grima Wormtongue: Wotan Stormcrow!

The line of Aragorn, heir of Isildur and Elendil, shows pervasive similarities with the family of Sigmund and Siegfried. Here, I grant, both authors probably worked under the strong influence of the Saga of the Volsungs, but I doubt anyone who knows their Tolkien will not be startled by the similarities as they experience the Ring Cycle.

Both stories feature heroes who are of kingly lineage, but who are forced into a life of obscurity, living in the forest as masters of woodcraft, performing heroic but unsung deeds to protect the innocent.

Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur fell in battle with Sauron, during which his blade was broken, and its pieces bequeathed to the lineage, to be kept against the day that it should be reforged and the line renewed. Siegmund fell in battle with Hunding, during which his blade was broken, being given into safekeeping against the day his son, Siegfried, would finally reforge it, and begin his own adventure.

To any reader who is armed with a familiarity of Hobbits but lacks acquaintance with Wagner’s great work, I urge you to check it out. Wagner’s Ring is a vastly entertaining work that Tolkien never equals. Wagner’s Ring is substantially more original, and also evidences psychological and political sophistication that dwarfs Tolkien’s vision.

The Lord of the Rings has been rightly criticized for its tone-deaf treatment of adult sexuality and politics. Tolkien’s races of swarthy, primitive, evil peoples living to the south and to the east have been criticized; likewise his mythopoetic glorification of the West, which represent civilization, art and beauty, and is contrasted to the dull, dumb, violent lands off toward the Turkey and North Africa. Er, I mean, toward Mordor.

Tolkien is also ham-fisted with his pre-modern treatment of women. His heroines are beautiful but aloof; they are enigmatic, otherworldly, and without personality. They are, indeed, frequently inhuman; the two great love stories of Middle Earth, Beren and Luthien, and Aragorn and Arwen, tell of the love of humans for elvish maids.

There is, no doubt, something of the Troubadour’s ideal at work here, and, more importantly, we detect the queens of the Tuatha Dé Danann, beloved by many an Irish hero. But this vision pales in comparison to the vibrant, brilliant, intense heroines of Wagner’s saga – not only Brünnhilde, who emerges as the great personality of the cycle, but Ficka and Erda as well.

And this treats only Wagner’s libretto, leaving aside the revolutionary music of Wagner’s gigantic cycle, which is by far the largest composition in the standard repertoire. Wagner’s work is simply of a different magnitude, belonging in the company of Shakespeare and Homer.

Addendum (Dec 29, 2012): I’ve had some discussions about this post with friends, and they’ve persuaded me to make a couple of disclaimers. First of all, the topic at hand is so vast that inevitably my consideration is cursory and a great many relevant points were left on the table. I would especially note that it may have been salient to note Wagner’s obvious and reprehensible antisemitism in the context of contrasting the politics of LOTR unfavorably with the Ring. The short response to this is that I was not intending to contrast Tolkien to Wagner, but rather compare these two specific works, and Wagner’s personal failings aside, his Ring contains little mark of antisemitism, if any, while his extremely progressive political attitudes are central themes (see George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite for a classic elucidation of this aspect of the work.)

The second point I want to make explicit is that I love Tolkien and his work. I’ve read Lord of the Rings and numerous other works of his many times, and will undoubtedly re-read it in the future. It was primarily my enthusiasm for encouraging readers to explore Wagner’s work, which I assume has a smaller audience, that led me to praise the former at the expense of the latter. While I do regard Wagner as the far greater artist – and indeed, one of the greatest composers who ever lived – I have no quarrel with Tolkien. That said, his limitations should, I think, be acknowledged, even by his fans.

References
1) Carpenter H. and Tolkein C. (ed.s) The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1981. p. 306.
2) Cooke D. I Saw the World End; A Study of Wagner’s Ring. Clarendon Paperbacks. Oxford University Press. 1979. p. 137.
3) Wagner R., trans. Andrew Porter. The Ring of the Nibelung. W. W. Norton. 1976. pp. 67-8.
4) Tolkien J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books. 1965. pp. 84-5.

Written by Mesocosm

December 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Mindfulness Meditation and Hip Hop

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Self is illusion, music’s divine
Noosed by the strings of Jimmy’s guitar
I swing Purple Hazed pendulum
Hypnotizing the part of I that never dies….

  – Saul Williams

What do mindfulness meditation and freestyle rapping have in common? If you answered “Both are associated with increased activity in the middle prefrontal cortex,” you’re right!

Dr. Siyuan Liu led a study recently published in Scientific Reports, describing the neurological activity of twelve experienced freestyle rap artists. (1) The researchers monitored the rappers’ brain activity with fMRI imaging while they improvised lyrics over an eight-bar musical track, and compared their findings to the subjects’ brain activity while they performed pre-written lyrics over the same music. Science Daily reports:

During freestyle rapping, the researchers observed increases in brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for motivation of thought and action, but decreased activity in dorsolateral prefrontal regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role. (2)

This study caught my intention because Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, has persuasively hypothesized that the middle prefrontal cortex, a brain area which encompasses the medial prefrontal cortext, is strongly associated with mindfulness meditation. Dr. Siegel believes that synaptic growth and activation in the region are stimulated by years of meditation practice.

Siegel associates the middle prefrontal cortex with nine forms of attunement: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, empathy, self-knowing awareness, fear-modulation, intuition, and morality. (3)

Notice that Liu et al. report decreased activity in the “dorsolateral prefrontal regions that normally play a supervisory or monitoring role.” This finding is significant, because it suggests that as mindfulness increased in the freestyling subjects, their self-identification with their thoughts and ideas decreased at the same time. As they became more creatively engaged and self-aware, they became less self-identified with their passing thoughts.

This is precisely what was observed by Farb et al. in another brain activity study of mindfulness practitioners. (4) Participants in the study were asked to reflect on the self-reflective meaning of a series of words, and those who were inexperienced in mindfulness meditation showed an increase in activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal regions, while experienced meditators did not.

Siegel comments on the study:

The coupling of these two regions suggests that without training, we are often unable to remove ourselves from the narrative chatter of our busy minds and distinguish ongoing story narration and mental time travel from immediate experience of the present moment. This narrative neural activity suggests that without mindfulness training people may naturally continue to be unable to ‘just live in the present’ and instead are filled with ruminations and self-referential judgments. (5)

I would speculate that any creative act of sustained and focused awareness functions as a kind of yoga, and leads to an increase in creative activity accompanied by a decrease in identification with the discursive self. This is what the Zen master Eihei Dogen described as “the wholehearted engagement in the way,” or the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow states.” Liu et al. do not mention mindfulness or meditation in their findings, but they do refer to “flow states” twice in their article. (1)

A disciplined and sustained creative focus is therefore associated with long-term personal transformation of consciousness. This is something artists have intuitively known about themselves for a long time – probably for as long as there have been artists.

When I recently heard Bill Viola speak, for example, he reflected favorably on his experience living in Japan, observing that “it was a culture that had mastered the art of getting the mind out of the way, which you have to do in order to create.”

One doesn’t want to make too much of scientific findings of this kind, which are merely suggestive – especially at this stage in the research. For starters, it is not always clear what increased activity in any localized area of the brain necessarily means, and most of the functional correlations described in this post are either hypothetical or not well understood. But the data are suggestive, intriguing, and congruent with some of the best hypotheses around regarding the neurological correlates of mindfulness.

Correction
Thanks to Don Salmon of Remember to Breathe for pointing out that I confused the medial prefrontal cortex and middle prefontal cortex.

References
1) Liu S, Chow HM, Xu Y, et al. “Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap“. Scientific Reports 2, 15 Nov 2012.
2) NIH/National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (2012, November 15). This is your brain on freestyle rap: Study reveals characteristic brain patterns of lyrical improvisation. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 19, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121115133154.htm
3) Siegel DJ. The Mindful Brain. W. W. Norton and Company. 2007. pg. 191.
4) Farb NAS, Segal ZV, Mayberg et al. “Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference“. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 December; 2(4): 313–322.
5) Siegel DJ. “Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being“. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007 December; 2(4): 259–263.

Written by Mesocosm

November 19, 2012 at 11:05 am

Bola: Vespers

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For my money, Bola is one of the greatest electronic music artists. Check out this 2002 demo, “Vespers.” The video is gorgeous, too.

 
 

Written by Mesocosm

September 5, 2012 at 11:03 am

Posted in Music

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