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November 2020

An Advent Gripe

Not about, but on the occasion of: the complaint I made last year about the thing called "Holiday":

The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.

Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned.

"Middle of the last century"? I must have meant to say the 19th. It certainly predated the middle of the 20th. But anyway:

The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent.

Which I'm currently doing. 


From The Hedgehog Review

Several years ago someone recommended Hedgehog here. I had seen ads for it and bits of essays and thought it was worth a try, so I subscribed. It's a little expensive, and I probably wouldn't have ventured if I hadn't gotten some kind of promotional discount offer.
I was somewhat disappointed, not because the work wasn't good but because most of it just wasn't that relevant or interesting to me. Issues accumulated without my doing more than glancing at them. One, for instance, was devoted to our relationship to animals, another to our relationship to food ("our" being, I think, Americans). The Summer 2020 edition is called "Monsters" and seems to be concerned with the presence of same in popular culture, although I'm not sure because I haven't read it. These things are certainly worth studying, and the writing and research seem to be of very high quality, as is the physical production. But I myself am not interested enough in them to spend much time reading about them.
I wouldn't have renewed for a second year, but they offered it to me at a steep discount, so I gave it another year, with more or less the same result. I had decided definitely not to renew for a third year, until the most recent issue arrived. It's called "America On the Brink," and it concerns, as you would suppose, our political and cultural situation. I've only read the first essay, "Dissent and Solidarity," by James Davison Hunter. It alone has me thinking of renewing my subscription after all. He includes this quotation from Martin Luther King:
The question, What is man? is one of the most important questions confronting any generation. The whole political, social, and economic structure of society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question. Indeed, the conflict which we witness in the world today between totalitarianism and democracy is at bottom a conflict over the question, What is man?
That question, I submit, is at the root of the division. I don't think I'll try, in a blog post, to summarize the answers given by the two factions, especially as they are not as a rule clearly articulated, except in the case of orthodox Christians. Neither does Hunter, but he makes this observation:
Fault lines already well established between elites and the general public and between the left and the right became open cleavages through the 1970s and 1980s. Those cleavages deepened even more after 1989. With the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a common enemy against which to define shared national identity. With no external enemy, collective identities were formed against the enemy within America itself.
The emphasis is mine. This is the state of things: the factions regard each other not as fellow citizens with whom they disagree, but as enemies. For the most part they offer different answers for King's question. And that is another way of saying that the conflict is a religious one. You can read the whole essay here. It's faintly hopeful. 

Aimee Mann: Bachelor Number 2

After this first paragraph, this is something I posted on Facebook a week or so ago. Before hard disk space became so cheap, I backed up a lot of mp3 files to cd. I've kept them and there are dozens of them, each with typically at least 100 tracks, if it's pop music. Sometimes I pick one at random and put in the cd player in the car and leave it there for a while. I get a lot of surprises, some good and some bad. This was one of the good ones. I thought I had written about this album here at one time, ten or more years ago, but apparently I did not. I remember saying to someone at the time that it was extremely good although a little on the too cool and polished side for my taste. I am hereby raising my opinion from"extremely good" to "outstanding."
All you old folks who tend to think pop music doesn't have all that much to offer past 1975 or so, listen to Aimee Mann's Bachelor Number 2 (or The Last Remains of the Dodo). This is some of the most brilliant songwriting of the last 50 years, with performances to match. It came out in 2000, so not exactly of the moment, but it's timeless, within the pop frame of reference. Musically there are a lot of Beatles-y and Bacharach-y touches.
My only reservation is that in subject matter and general effect the songs don't really touch the depths for me, tending toward rather cool and sharp personal complaints about what seem to be specific people. But dang, she's good. Here's one song, with lyrics, so you can see how well-crafted they are.

Josephine Tey: The Franchise Affair (audio)

On the weekend of November 6, i.e. the weekend after the election, my wife and I made an overnight trip to my ancestral homeland of northern Alabama. It's a 5 1/2 hour drive at least, more if you make more than the minimal stops, so we usually listen to an audio book on the way up and back, trying to find one that will take most of the time but not go over it. This time it was the above-mentioned Josephine Tey novel, read by Carole Boyd. 

It's pretty rare for me that I recognize the name of the reader of an audio book, and the pattern held here. The quality of this one is so fine that I wanted to know more about the narrator, so as soon as I got home I looked her up. It turns out that Carole Boyd is a moderately successful actress (see Wikipedia), especially so at voice work.

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Election Comment (2)

Andrew McCarthy is an experienced and knowledgeable lawyer, and also a Trump supporter. He was the "yes" in that "yes-no-maybe" note about voting for Trump that I posted a few weeks ago. Like a lot of reasonable people, he thinks there are good grounds for believing that there was some cheating by the Democrats in this election. He thinks, for instance, that there could be as many as 10,000 questionable votes in Pennsylvania. But yet:

See, the president trails by 55,000 in Pennsylvania. It is anything but clear that all 10,000 late-arriving ballots are Biden votes — a goodly chunk of them could be Trump votes that the president would be knocking out. But even if we suspend disbelief and assume that they’re all Biden votes, the president would still be 45,000 short of flipping the state into his win column.

This is the president’s fatal problem. No matter which battleground state we analyze, there is always a mismatch between the impropriety alleged and the remedy that it could yield. Where Trump is strongest, as in the Supreme Court case, the yield in votes is a relative pittance. Where Trump’s claims are weaker and hotly disputed, the president is asking for mass disfranchisement, which no court is ever going to order.

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There are three kinds of people in Alabama

(1) Those like the man who erected this sign, which is highly visible from I-65, a highway I travel often.


(2) Those who see the sign and are indignant and say "That's so stupid. Can you believe there are such idiots in the world? I'm embarrassed that I live in this state."

(3) Those who see it and laugh but say "Well, actually he has a point." 

Here, by the way, is some information on the man responsible for the sign.

I recall seeing it as long ago as the 1980s. A few years ago it disappeared and I was afraid that the forces of Godlessness had finally prevailed: someone had decided it was too divisive or something. But it had been blown down by a storm, and was eventually put back

Now that I think about it some more, though, and having read the second piece linked above, I see there are actually four types of people.

(4) Those who think it's crazy but like the fact that there is still some untamed eccentricity around. 

Election Comment

An angel came to me and said, "Ok, here's our best offer: Biden wins the presidency, and the Republicans keep the Senate."

I didn't have to think for very long. No more Trump craziness, from Trump himself, from his enemies, from his supporters. And the damage the Democrats can do will be severely limited.

"I'll take it," I said. 

"That's good," said the angel. "Because we weren't actually going to listen to you anyway.


Some Copland

I have a prejudice against ballet music. It's probably not uncommon: I call it a prejudice, but I could fairly maintain that it's a rational judgment. By its nature the music is episodic and tied to a story, or at least a series of scenes or tableaux, which are meant to be seen in conjunction with the music, and in fact are meant to be the main attraction. So if you're listening to the music alone you tend to get a group of little pieces that don't necessarily seem to be that well connected, and whose tie to the story is either limiting or vague or both. In any case it has to be supplied from outside.

I love The Rite of Spring and it's so intrinsically tied to its program that I can't imagine it being other than it is. But I wonder what I, and for that matter listeners in general, would think of it if it had just appeared as pure music with a neutral title like Concerto for Orchestra. I'm sure it would have still made a splash, but would  it have made the splash that it did, with the intentionally shocking primitivism of the ballet? Would it have been criticized as lacking unity? Impossible to know, obviously. I haven't heard it for some time, so I think I'll listen to it with that in mind.

But then if we're talking about a suite chosen from the ballet it's not really a fair criticism. A suite is by definition a set of distinct pieces, not a single coherent composition. I hear The Nutcracker Suite as a set of wonderful small works, and I love it. (I'm never sure about the officially correct name of the thing, and even less sure about how it should be italicized or quoted, but that's the way Wikipedia does it, so I'll go with that.)

Anyway: the next two LPs in the Fr. Dorrel collection, in the order in which they happen to sit on the shelf, are two volumes of Aaron Copland's music, three of them ballet scores, or suites taken from them.

Billy the Kid and Rodeo (The Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel, Westminster WST 14059, 1959)

Both these pretty much fit, and are limited by, the remarks I made above. Both are pretty "sectioned" and I really like some of the sections, others not so much. The opening of Billy the Kid is great, that Copland wide-open-spaces sound which somehow has come to say "America." And the gunfight, which is mostly percussion, is certainly interesting. And I wonder how it would be taken if, as I suggested re The Rite above, it were extracted and presented with a bland title. In this case people might actually say that it sounds like a gunfight.

This recording also includes a bit from the ballet which apparently is not officially part of the suite. It's called "Billy's Waltz" and it's a simple, unpretentious, and lovely piece which deserves to be heard.

Rodeo...well, broadly speaking my view of it is much the same. I like some of it, mainly the quieter parts. It strikes me as a bit ersatz, maybe a touch patronizing, when it ventures into barn-dance territory, as is true of certain portions of the other ballet.

The recording doesn't strike me as great, either sonically or as a performance. But it certainly isn't bad, either. The sound really is pretty impressive for its time.

Appalachian Spring, El Salon Mexico, and Dance from Music for the Theatre (Bernstein, New York Philharmonic, Columbia MS 6355)

I love Appalachian Spring. If you don't know it, you should. It's my favorite Copland, which really isn't definitive because I don't know a lot of his work. But if I were to hear every note of it, I have a feeling that Appalachian Spring would retain its position.

About this recording I'm somewhat ambivalent. The sound is terrific, noticeably better than that of the Westminster disk, even though it was recorded only a few years later, in 1962. I can't fault the performance, which is crisp and precise and energetic, flawless but not slick, with striking dynamics. But those dynamics are a bit too striking for my taste and the level of energy borders on the aggressive. The loud entry of the strings in the second section, after the gentle introduction, is jarring to me.

But my reservation is at least in part the result of prejudice in favor of another recording: the full ballet in the original instrumentation, conducted by the composer.

CoplandAppalachianSpringFullBalletOriginalInstrumentationBernstein's recording is a beauty, but this one is the sweet shy quietly pretty girl whom you didn't notice at first but who steals your heart when you do. The original instrumentation is only thirteen instruments: flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, and a set of strings--that was all the theater had room for. This is also the original score, roughly a third longer than the suite. Copland says that the only change he made for the suite "was to cut a few spots that were needed only for choreographic purposes." I haven't tried to figure out what was cut, but I think the extra length is part of the reason that this recording has a more leisurely quality. But aside from that, the chamber orchestra makes it an altogether gentler, sweeter, more intimate piece of music, and for me more moving. And I think it's more appropriate to the low-key story line of the ballet, which depicts a wedding. 

I hadn't heard this LP for many years, so I got it out to see if my old affection still held. It does. Maybe it's only because this is the recording by which I first got acquainted with the piece, but in any case I prefer it. Looking around the web I get the impression that it isn't in print as I originally bought it in the 1970s (Columbia M32736, pictured above). But I'm pretty sure it's available in some form, as I see several "Copland Conducts Copland" collections. The same no doubt is true of the Bernstein recording. 

The most well-known part of the ballet is the use of the tune "Simple Gifts," which Catholics and others are accustomed to hearing as "The Lord of the Dance." I have always disliked that song for some reason and am relieved to find that it hasn't hurt my enjoyment of Copland's music. 

Copland says that El Salon Mexico is "the Mexico of the tourists," not "the more profound side of Mexico," which "would have been foolish for me to attempt to translate into musical sounds." Fair enough. It's a short (under eleven minutes), lively, colorful piece: nothing deep, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it.

The Dance from Music for the Theatre is only a few minutes long and ends with a sort of near-iambic pair of beats--'DaDUM"--which in my mind immediately turned into "So what?" I had no reaction worth remarking upon to the piece. The liner notes say that the work as a whole "was not intended for the theatre, but rather as a commentary upon it." I'll give it another chance some time.

As you probably know, while Copland's music is thought of as being deeply connected to the American landscape, especially of the West, and to rural or rustic life, he was a Jewish homosexual from New York.

I've known that for a long time. What I did not know until I looked him up on Wikipedia a few days ago was that William "Billy the Kid" Bonney, whose real name was actually not William or Billy but Henry McCarty, was also a native of New York City. Ain't that America?

Time Management Skills, Lack of

Just a note to say that in an effort to get control of the amount of time I spend online, and to focus on some writing I'm trying to do, I'm making it a rule for myself to stay off the net until noon every day. So I won't see comments made in the morning until the afternoon. 

You're Gonna Miss Your Constitutional Liberalism When It's Gone

Somewhere or other, sometime or other, I read that G.K. Chesterton, asked whether he was a liberal, answered that he was "the only liberal." I sometimes feel that way. I long ago acquiesced to the fact that in the American political context I'm more or less correctly classified as a conservative. But as the so-common-as-to-be-hackneyed followup to any such statement goes, what American conservatism seeks to conserve is in large part classical liberalism.

It probably doesn't need saying to people who read this blog, but in case it does: "classical liberalism" refers not to what we currently refer to as the liberal faction in contemporary politics, but to a political philosophy which is, in a nutshell, that of the United States of America. Most discussions of it emphasize its economic aspects, which I'm sure is accurate, but I'm not a political philosopher or economist and am not very interested in wrangling over the definition. For my purposes it's the political system described by the Constitution, and a corresponding culture which values self-government, liberty, the rule of law, reason, the free exchange of ideas, religious tolerance, and so on--the whole list of things which until recently were generally agreed upon, all based on what were considered in the 18th century self-evident truths about human nature. The American constitution puts that basic worldview into a system of government, and so I prefer the term "constitutional liberalism." (Also "classical liberalism" has other associations, with capitalism for instance, which I want to avoid--but that's another topic.)

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