Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Skills Every Man Should Master

Robert A. Heinlein wrote: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

There has been text written in the last year or so lamenting the loss of skills that were common just a generation ago. These laments range from the I Can't Do One-Quarter of the Things My Father Can, to Popular Mechanics 25 Skills Every Man Should Know.

Now Esquire Magazine publishes its list, The 75 Skills Every Man Should Master. I wonder at the purpose of some of the entries on the list, perhaps they were included just so everyone who reads it would have something to check off and say, "Got that one!"

5. Name a book that matters. The Catcher in the Rye does not matter. Not really. You gotta read.

[Yep. Got that one.]

13. Throw a punch. Close enough, but not too close. Swing with your shoulders, not your arm. Long punches rarely land squarely. So forget the roundhouse. You don't have a haymaker. Follow through; don't pop and pull back. The length you give the punch should come in the form of extension after the point of contact. Just remember, the bones in your hand are small and easy to break. You're better off striking hard with the heel of your palm. Or you could buy the guy a beer and talk it out.

[Nope. Years of Aikido to learn how to NOT throw a punch.]

16. Tie a bow tie.

[Nope. Don't own one. Afraid if I wore it I might look like George Will.]

29. Understand quantum physics well enough that he can accept that a quarter might, at some point, pass straight through the table when dropped. Sometimes the laws of physics aren't laws at all. Read The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone, by Kenneth W. Ford.

[Nope. "Nobody understands quantum physics." - Richard Feynman]

47. Recite one poem from memory. Here you go:


When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

—William Butler Yeats

[Yes. When my youngest daughter was in elementary school she wrote a poem about apple blossoms. It so enchanted me, that it has stayed forever in my memory. Years later I recited it to a professor of English, who also was charmed. The professor said that it reminded her of A.E Housman's "Loveliest of Trees." Those two poems are now forever entwined in my rememberance.

Loveliest of Trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

—A.E. Housman

Friday, May 23, 2008

The 1750 Hit Parade

A nifty review in the Wall Street Journal of The Great Transformation of Musical Taste by William Weber points out that our taste for great classics in concert hall music is rather modern. Up until the mid-1800s, concert programs were primarily composed of recent works by living composers:
Until the early 19th century, Mr. Weber says, no body of European music was viewed as innately superior to any other. Concerts displayed a variety of tastes and styles and rarely featured esteemed composers or particular genres. Having studied hundreds of concert programs spanning several decades, Mr. Weber tells us that the typical 18th-century public performance featured a miscellany of opera overtures, arias, concertos and ensemble numbers – all by living composers. "Variety is the soul of a concert," one pundit pronounced. Mozart's father advised him that success lay in keeping his compositions "short, easy and popular."
What happened to music?
Over the course of the 19th century, Mr. Weber shows, thinkers and commentators came to regard music not so much as a mode of entertainment as a source of truth. Their idealism was of a piece with the views of Shelley, Ruskin and Coleridge, who argued for the higher social purpose of art and literature. The Italian political leader Giuseppe Mazzini demanded that opera serve "art and Christian principle," not base commercialism.

Berlioz and Schumann put forth their own ideas of music as a form of moral responsibility, even suggesting that the world would be a better place if it were run by musicians...
I can think of nothing that would kill the pleasure of music faster than making it moral responsibility. Of course, modernist composers didn't help themselves:
The list of canonical works grew during the late 19th century and early 20th. Naturally, new works entered the repertory, but less frequently. The audience preference for the old intensified into an outright dislike of the new when craggy modernist dissonance started competing for public attention with lush, late-romantic harmonies. Think only of the howls of rage that greeted the works by Schönberg and Stravinsky in the 1910s and 1920s.

Thus the canon became a form of resistance to a turn in concert programming that, with some exceptions, never captured the public's affection. In a sense, we inhabit this world today. Mr. Weber is not a moralist and does not claim that, by preferring Tchaikovsky to, say, the current-day atonalist Charles Wuorinen, we are philistines or reactionaries. But he does show that the dead did not always reign supreme over our conception of the great and the good. And he leaves us to conclude that they need not do so now...
So all that 1950s uproar over Rock 'n Roll being the unworthy music was a middle-brow echo of the musical shifts in the 1800s.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Taking the Fifth

Beethoven's 5th symphony in C minor is such a workhorse (or warhorse) that it has become a symbol of Western concert music and it has been been drafted into many uses. Most often it appears musically as a straw man with a sign hanging from it's neck that reads, "Dead White European Music."

But occasionally the genius of the composer calls forth some genius from the adapter. Two treatments come to mind. First is Peter Schickele's "New Horizons in Music Appreciation: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony" to this: Sid Ceasar and Nanette Fabray having an argument to the Fifth Symphony's first movement.

Two points that strike me: They used the entire first movement of nearly six minutes. I don't think a television programmer today would let a skit develop that long. Though the movements seem to be repetitive, they develop the story with the music and let the music dictate the pace of the skit. This would be very daring whenever it was done.

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