05/11/14

Confused Science


Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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05/3/14

More reasons to read


Brain and readingOn the Inside Higher Ed website, Joshua Kim recently asked the question,

When do you find the time and energy to read books?

That surprised me. What energy does reading take? It’s not like running, or swimming or playing sports.

Sitting down in a comfortable chair, cat on the lap, cup of tea at hand, and a small stack of books within easy reach. Some energy to set yourself up for an hour to two’s reading, but hardly any expended to do the actual reading. Well, maybe a little to move the facial muscles into a smile at the sheer satisfaction one gets from such activity.

And at night; tucked in, dog and cats on the bed snuggled up, cup of Ovaltine on the bedside table, small stack of books within easy reach – a quiet hour or so reading before lights out. Winding down from the day gently. No energy wasted at all.*

Putting a book into each bookstand kept on the counter when we have lunch together, on the weekends. Both of us enjoying a peaceful midday break, reading while we eat. No energy at all.

Taking out a paperback to read on the subway or bus during your commute; reading it in the doctor’s office waiting room; sitting on the front porch in the summer evening sun with a glass of wine and a book: effortless.

Reading is not simply something you learn at school, then neglect for the rest of your life – like algebra or Latin. It’s a skill that you use daily, and to use it well, you have to keep sharp and exercised, like a muscle. As a Northwestern University study found, there’s a difference in being a good and a poor reader:

What makes a good reader? First, you have to know how to read the words on a page and understand them — but there’s a higher-level step to reading comprehension. You have to tie together the words over time, maintaining their order and meaning in your memory, so that you can understand phrases, sentences, paragraphs and extended texts.

I would argue that reading more heightens those comprehension skills, just like exercise improves coordination and muscle quality.

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04/26/14

Just Six Songs?


The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB’;s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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04/18/14

Lost Shakespeare play found?


BBCCardenio. Written by William Shakespeare. Based on an episode in Miguel Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote. The novel was translated from Spanish into English in 1612.

The play was known once, but lost. Performed by the King’s Men in 1613, the same year Shakespeare penned Henry VIII, or All is True and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Performed before June 29th, the day the Globe theatre burned down during a performance of Henry VIII.

Cardenio was entered in the Stationer’s Register in 1653 as a collaboration by playwrights Fletcher and Shakespeare. The Guardian explains:

In 1653 the leading English publisher of plays and poetry, Humphrey Moseley, registered his copyright in a list of 42 plays. Somewhere mid-list is “The History of Cardenio, by Mr Fletcher & Shakespeare”. Shakespeare had yet to become English literature’s biggest cash cow, and Moseley never published that play (or many others that he registered). Moseley’s title-phrase, The History of Cardenio, appears verbatim in the first English translation of Part One of Don Quixote, published in 1612. Since the phrase appears nowhere else in English, the play that Moseley registered must, logically speaking, have dramatised the Cardenio episodes from Cervantes’s novel. It’s a plausible attribution to Fletcher and Shakespeare.

But since then, it has been lost. Sort of. Contenders have surfaced, of course. Lost Shakespeare manuscripts have been a sort of cottage industry since the early 18th century.

The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, a 1611 play, was identified as being by Shakespeare by a handwriting expert in 1990, but it’s a contested attribution. Most scholars say it was written by Thomas Middleton. Some argue that Shakespeare, if he were involved, was a minor collaborator. Most just shrug it off.

Another play – Double Falsehood – was allegedly an early 18th-century rewrite of Shakespeare’s original by lawyer and playwright, Lewis Theobald (a lot of his plays got that treatment in the 18th century). Theobald claimed to have three originals in his possession when he “refined” the play for contemporary audience.

From The Guardian again:

In December 1727 the Drury Lane theatre performed a play based on the Cardenio episodes in Don Quixote, and based in particular on the 1612 translation. It was called Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers, and the edition printed that month declared it was “written originally by W Shakespeare; and now revised and adapted to the stage by Mr Theobald”. Lewis Theobald was a minor playwright, minor poet and the world’s first Shakespeare scholar.

Again, highly disputed, and considered by some as a fake written to ride on the coattails of the growing Bardolatry of the age. Here’s a part of the story:

…Theobald’s reputation was not pristine. In 1716 he had been accused of plagiarism by a watchmaker named Henry Meysteyer, who had given Theobald an early draft of a play, looking for advice. After four months of work rewriting the play, Theobald considered it to be entirely his own work. The practice of adapting old plays and claiming sole credit for the result was not unusual at the time, though other playwrights sensibly chose dead dramatists to steal from.
Theobald’s adaptation of the lost Shakespeare play, which he called Double Falsehood, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on December 13, 1727. To ensure its success, Theobald persuaded the age’s great actor, Barton Booth, then in failing health, to come out of retirement to play the lead. It was Booth’s last role before his health was permanently ruined, and Theobald was blamed for hastening Booth’s death. But it worked: the play was a huge success.
Theobald published his adaptation the next year, with a preface in which he explained the provenance of one of his three manuscripts:

one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is of above Sixty Years Standing, in the Handwriting of Mr. Downes, the famous Old Prompter; and, as I am credibly inform’d, was early in the Possession of the celebrated Mr. Betterton, and by Him design’d to have been usher’d into the World… There is a Tradition (which I have from the Noble Person, who supply’d me with One of my Copies) that this Play was given by our Author, as a Present of Value, to a Natural Daughter of his, for whose Sake he wrote it, in the Time of his Retirement from the Stage.

For the past two centuries Theobald’s play, along with the provenance he gave it, has largely been considered a hoax. Was it a coincidence, then, that Theobald picked the same plot as a lost Shakespeare play for a clever attempt at forgery, or could it be possible that a manuscript of Cardenio lies behind Double Falsehood?…
Theobald’s three Cardenio manuscripts disappeared. They were rumored to be held by the Covent Garden Theatre—perhaps purchased for the revival of Double Falsehood by David Garrick in 1770—but that theater burned down in 1808. Or they might have been purchased from Theobald’s estate sale by the critic William Warburton, who left a pile of manuscripts sitting on his kitchen table. His cook assumed they were garbage and used the paper to line pie tins. But Theobald’s adaptation went through three editions in quick order, and many copies of Double Falsehood have survived to the present day.

Now there are claims another manuscript has been found, a printed version of the original, hidden among the books in a family heirloom. As the story says:

The team of experts from the auction house Christie’s, have confirmed this morning that a 16th century book found recently in the personnal collection of a recently deceased English Lord, is indeed an authentic printed version of William Shakespeare’s lost play, The History of Cardenio.

The book was discovered last year by employees proceeding to a successorale inventory, after the death of the Sir Humphrey McElroy, a rich baron and antiques collector from Brighton. It was at first treated as a possible fake, but all the analysis that were realized since have suggested otherwise. The authenticity of both the ink and the paper have now been confirmed, and it seems it is indeed, a late 16th print.

Stranger things have happened. But is it likely? So far I can’t find another confirmation that the story is factual, or indeed any more substantive information about the manuscript.

More to follow as the story gets more play. So to speak…

04/18/14

Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters



VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

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04/17/14

Tudor politics: Elizabeth’s struggle


Elizabeth bookDavid Starkey’s book, Elizabeth: the Struggle for the Throne, is the best book I’ve read on the period of Elizabeth’s life between the death of Henry VIII and her own coronation. It gives a clear, richly detailled picture of the machinations, the politics and the society that she lived in during the 25 years before she became monarch – 1533 to 1558.

And what a life it was. In and out of favour, imprisoned, in fear of her life, threatened, cajoled, living on her wits, political puppet and Machiavellian instigator… Elizabeth emerges as a canny, quick and lively actor in these events.

I have a passion for the history of the Tudors, in particular Henry VIII and Elizabeth. I still enjoy watching the 1971 BBC dramatization of the Six Wives of Henry VIII

Thanks to my brother-in-law’s former position in the National Archives, I was able to see and handle several historical items and documents from both monarchs, on my visit to England in 2011, including a famous letter from the Princess Elizabeth to her sister and Queen, Mary, over Elizabeth’s alleged role in the Wyatt revolt. She protests her loyalty and allegiance to Mary at a time when a charge of treason would have meant her execution.

(A photograph of that letter (not mine) appears below, right; my own photographs, taken in low light because a flash was not allowed, are generally not as good for reproduction, but are steeped in nostalgia anyway.)

It’s an indescribable thrill to hold such a piece of history in your hands, knowing its history, its age, and its author.*

Elizabeth's letter to MaryAlthough I’ve read a considerable number of books on both monarchs and their times, I have read few on the interim period – the reigns of Edward VI, Queen Jane and Queen Mary. This book captures that period nicely. It’s a rich time for anyone interested in both history and politics because it was at a critical time in England’s development, socially, culturally, politically and religiously.

It’s exciting stuff, full of plotting, mystery, uprisings, secret meetings, international diplomacy and war. And the young Elizabeth navigated these rocky waters deftly. Most of the time. She was the child of both Henry and Anne Boleyn, and both were strong, intelligent and passionate people; traits that emerge in Elizabeth at an early age.

The book also has some darker moments; suggestions of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Thomas Seymour,  when he was her guardian, but that get played here as more inappropriate and saucy than actual consummation.

In the early years, her sister Mary is almost a cast-out: her mother rejected, her religion denigrated, and she forced to serve as maid to the baby Elizabeth (while Anne was queen). That changed as her father’s marriages changed, and when Edward took the throne she was living alone (albeit in state), but one suspects it was a humiliation she never forgot.

The real story, the real excitement, gets into high gear when Edward VI dies, and Mary is crowned. Initially popular, “Bloody Mary’s” conservative Catholicism and intolerance towards any form of Protestantism, as well as a series of poor decisions and polices, turned the populace against her. And the Protestant Elizabeth looms as a greater threat as Mary ages and proves unable to bear an heir. It’s gripping stuff.

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