Sunday, 9 August 2015

Book Thoughts - Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff

(Pulitzer Prize Finalist)

For most, the name “Bach” probably conjures up this most famous portrait of him – seeming serious, formidable, maybe a bit like a bureaucrat, and ripe with seniority evidenced by the double chin:

This was the time before the invention of photography, and the portraits’ subjects would choose how they’d like to be seen by the viewer, which often amounted to their job functions or what they did.  Bach is shown as a composer here holding a piece of music.  The title says it’s a 6 voice perpetual canon, so it requires 6 simultaneous melodic lines.  But there are only 3 here – where are the others?

After years of puzzling over the riddle, it’s discovered that by reading the 3 lines from our perspective as one is doing normally, combined with the same 3 lines read from Bach’s perspective (ie. backwards and with different clefs), a 6 voice canon would thus emerge as titled.  Bach, though principled and disciplined, seems to have a playful and maybe slightly mischievous side, too.

As in this portrait, it is the many sides of Bach that I find fascinating.  As one of the best organist of his time playing the hymn at church, he would add many embellishments of his own that confused the congregation who were trying to sing a simple tune.  Then as it is now, his music is very demanding for the musicians, and at a rehearsal for a difficult piece he scolded a bassoon player for messing up the part, leading to a brief sword fight between the teacher/student pair.  Intending to leave his employer he forced the issue of resignation to an extent that earned him one month of jail time, making him one of the very few western musicians in history to have been imprisoned.  While having written music that can seem heavy and overly structured, the man who gave birth to them could be feisty, demanding, and not willing to conform to every rule.

Beyond this seemingly cavalier personality, however, Bach’s skill as a composer was honed through incredible hard work.  He was very much self taught and often studied and copied works of many other composers.  He also composed at a furious pace - at one point writing 20 to 30 minutes of music for choir and orchestra, then perform it during the Sunday service every week, not to mention he has to teach at school, conduct for other city and church functions, host out of town musicians, and raising 20 children (only 7 survived to adulthood).  It’s no surprise that he left very little letters and personal journals.  There simply was no time.

What most fascinated me about Bach though, is that while I’ve known him mostly as a composer, it may be more apt to describe Bach as a musical scientist, interested in all aspect of music.  As a music virtuoso he played the violin and was one of the best organ players known for his musicality, technique, and improvisation.  His technical understanding in musical instruments and player ergonomics, especially the organ, allowed him input to the design and construction of organs, violins, and the fortepiano that would later become the modern day piano.  As a scientist and scholar, he composed pieces that systematically navigated all major and minor keys showing the harmonic possibilities afforded by the new tuning system on the keyboard so that instead of staying within the keys of 3 sharps and 3 flats, one can navigate through the entire set of 24 keys.  As a teacher, he wrote pedagogical pieces for multiple and progressive levels of musical expertise on keyboard and string instruments that are still played today, training player’s evenness of the left and right hand on the piano, for instance.  He was a conductor for choral as well as orchestral groups and driven by his curiosity and gregariousness, was eager to receive many visiting musicians to the city.  Being entrepreneurial, he bought and rented out instruments for a fee, and sold compositions for himself and other musicians.  In all, Bach was involved in all aspects of music making – the intellectual process of composition, the act of teaching, conducting, performing (individually and collectively), the engineering aspect of instrument design, maintenance, and the politics and commercial procurement of music.  He had an obsessive curiosity in the nature and science of music that permeated his art and path of inquiry.

Of all the roles Bach held, he chose to portray himself as a composer first and foremost, probably viewing the written music as his greatest achievement.  Yet, at the time of his death at the age of 65 in 1750, Bach was most remembered as an outstanding organist and improviser.  His music was considered by the public as too old fashioned, too ornate and dense, belonging to the bygone provincial style of the Baroque period, while the music world had shifted its gaze to the simpler, cleaner international style of the Classical period, with Vienna at its centre and to be represented by masters such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn.  Bach’s music would only remain known to his students and a small group of international connoisseurs.  It was only when Mendelssohn performed an abridged version of his St. Matthew Passion nearly a century after Bach’s death that the general world had revived the interest in the works of this great master.  His music integrated the previously independent principles of “thorough bass, harmony, and counterpoint”.  As he was inspired by the Newtonian era’s sense of inquiry for truth, Bach’s exploration in the musical science would set new frameworks for western music and his contribution would be compared to this great scientist.  His composition had a great influence on the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Max Reger, and is still much admired and performed for their technical demand, pedagogical value, and artistic beauty the world over, including popular works like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and the Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 1.

There’s a small story on Mozart’s early encounter with Bach’s works.  40 years after Bach’s passing, his former position as conductor at the St. Thomas School is now held by his student Johann Friedrich Doles. One day, Doles invited Mozart of Vienna to visit the school, and

the choir surprised Mozart with the performance of the double chorus motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied by Sebastian Bach. Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him.  Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears.  When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: “Now there is something one can learn from!”

The learned musician as given the world something to learn from.

 

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ps. I’m not a Bach expert and don’t have formal music training, and am simply an admirer of his music.  I hope this post still provides some value in understanding the composer.

Other Sources:

From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance, from Curtis Institute of Music, offered by Coursera

Listening to Music, Lecture 13 and 16, from Yale University

Great Composers – Bach, from BBC

Bach: a Passionate Life, by John Eliot Gardiner, from BBC

Rilling Lectures: St. Matthew Passion

Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey on the St. Matthew Passion performed by the Berlin Philharmonic

John Eliot Gardiner: In Rehearsal (of Cantata 63)

Interviews from All of Bach

An Art of the Fugue, played by Glenn Gould

Bach Performance on the Piano, by Angela Hewitt

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Documentary Films – Summer 2015

Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire (PBS – 3 part documentary)
The cultural story of Japan from the 16th century onward.

 

Pressure Cooker (Available on Hoopla)
A tough teacher, Wilma Stephenson, works in a poor neighbourhood high school to train students in the culinary arts to earn scholarships for college.

 

Citizenfour (Oscar Winner for Best Documentary Feature, 2015)
The story of Edward Snowden and his revelation of the NSA files – filmed as it occurred.

 

Good Hair
Comedian Chris Rock explores the commercial, cultural, and personal dimensions in the hair upkeep of the African American community and what it reflects of our society.

 

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Showing the workings of the famed Studio Ghibli, with focus on its formidable founder Hayao Miyazaki.  I particularly enjoyed the special features showing a visit by John Lasseter and the view of the studio from the “resident cat’s” point of view.

 

The Gatekeepers (Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary, 2012)
Six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service, reflect on the successes and failures of the agency’s past actions, then wishing to veer away from the previous hardline approach to a more conciliatory one based on the two-state solution.

 

Red Obsession
The story of the newly rich in China driving up the demand for ultra premium red wine and its subsequent price collapse in the years following.

 

Cirque du Soleil - Flow: A Tribute to the Artists of "O" (Available on Hoopla)
Thoughts and lives of the artists and athletes from the “O” show in Las Vegas performed by Cirque du Soleil.

 

Vanishing of the Bees
Around the world incidents of sudden, dramatic, and mysterious honeybee colony collapse are occurring with no definitive cause.  The film documents the role of bees in agriculture, the perspectives of the bee keepers and possible next steps.

 

The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall
Victor Gruen, the man often thought of as the Father of the Shopping Mall, had created the malls to bring the feel of European city centres to the burgeoning suburbs to America.  Seeing his creation morphing into monuments focused on profit maximization, however, he spent the rest of his life dissociating from this concept so attached to him.

 

The Cove (Oscar Winner for Best Documentary Feature, 2010)
Filmed in secret, a group of activists uncovers the practice of dolphin fishing activity inside a cove in Japan, and argue that it’s cruel, unnecessary, and seek to bring to awareness that the meat sold to consumers is contaminated with mercury.

 

Born into Brothels (Oscar Winner, 2004)
Intending on filming the lives of prostitutes in Calcutta, India, the documentary photographer Zana Briski ended up making friends with 8 children born here and taught them photography, which depicted the poignant, toiling, and treacherous daily lives of those in the red light district from a child’s perspective.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Some thoughts on Art

I am part of a discussion group in the KW area - KW Hungry Minds.  Topics of discussion ranges from gender issues, reconciliation, and the self – whatever suits our intellectual fancy.  Recently I had wanted to respond to an online comment about art, and long story short, was invited to write a blog post on it.

I want to thank Tess, the organizer, for encouraging me to do it and help edit out my grammar mistakes.  I’m self conscious about writing my own thoughts and sharing it in public, but hopefully some will find it useful or enjoyable.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Books: Spare Parts by Joshua Davis

In 2004, 4 Mexican American high school students from an impoverished neighbourhood of West Phoenix, Arizona entered a college level national underwater robotics competition and won, beating elite institutions including MIT.

In a sense, it is a David vs. Goliath story, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a story of illegal immigrants - the status held by 3 of the 4 students.  Davis paints a life outside the restrictions of the law, but also excluded from its protection.  The anxiety of deportation is ever present, making even a school field trip a test of nerves for the students, parents, and teachers, wondering at the sight of any law enforcer if that would be the prelude to a deportation.

For illegal immigrants, physical and social mobility isn’t a right.  After the competition, while the members of rival teams secured promising professional engineering careers, the main characters joined the army (after deporting himself), went to college, became a line cook, and a janitor.

While the protection of incumbent citizens’ opportunities and privileges are necessary and often justifiable, Davis wonders if a mutually beneficial path could exist for the newcomers who have shown the ability and willingness to contribute to the new society where they’ve come to call home?

Friday, 13 March 2015

Fall and Winter 2014 Reading

There’s a lot here.  I might try to update more regularly in smaller increments to see how it works.

Books

How was the modern world build?  Johnson shows that through the pervasive use of glass with its optical characteristics, understanding and building infrastructure to separate the clean from the dirty, the amplified ability to project and perceive sounds, the ubiquity of electric lighting, and the precise measurement and calculation of and with time, our modern world emerges from a world hardly imaginable not too long ago.

Computers, the ubiquitous thinking machines we now carry in our pockets and wear on wrists, had its first uses as calculators for modeling nuclear explosions, building the hydrogen bomb, and predict the weather.  Dyson show the quirky team of mathematicians and engineers, philosophers and physicists, led by John von Neumann and following Turing’s seminal thesis, that laid the foundation of the architecture in this digital universe still in use today.

Thanks to my friend Justin for the recommendation.
In this book, Newport argues that contrary to the belief that one should do where passion leads, it is a better alternative to build a rare and valuable skill, build up “career capital”, and in turn grow into position endowed with aspects that one can enjoy, such as autonomy and purpose.  I still believe that passion is important in one’s work, but I’m glad Newport has contributed another viewpoint in the diverse view on career path.

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

 

Documentaries

Kinshasa Symphony

The Danish Solution: The Rescue of the Jews in Denmark

看見台灣 (Taiwan from Above)

Tiny: A story about Living Small

The Internet’s Own Boy:
The story of Aaron Swartz

No Impact Man

Shredded

The Queen of Versailles

Interviews

Jack Ma, (馬雲),founder of Alibaba, Interviewed by Charlie Rose at Davos:

雷軍(Lei Jun, founder of Xiaomi)來台演講 (In Mandarin):

Podcasts

From Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner:

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Introduction to the Middle East

In the past, my interests in history have mainly focused on the “east” and the “west” – China and Japan versus the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, and occasionally Russia.  But what of the area in the middle, the parts that connect the two ends?  For centuries, the middle east enabled and fostered trade from both sides.  I wondered, what was their history and relationships as the neighbours changed or stayed the same.  Were the tense relations with the west in recent years always the case in history?  What are its origins?

Below are my first attempts in looking for some answers.  They are only an introduction, and by no means is my study on the subject complete at the end of this post.  In fact, it opens more questions – this merely educates me on the background of the land, and the terms often used in conjunction with these cultures.

I felt in learning about the middle east it’s imperative to understand its predominant religion – Islam, and the establishment of Israel in Palestine, for these colour the political rhetoric, the legal framework, and fuel the fundamentalist cause. The material below reflects this focus, and so far covers the history of Jews, Arabs, Persians, but not yet the Turks.  This is merely a starting point.

Through it all, I have been equally fascinated by the scene of devoted and joyous Jews holding up their Torah up high and by a Muslim’s submission in prayer in practicing their faith.  While the Jews contributed greatly to the development of finance in Europe, the contribution of Muslims in preserving ancient texts made Renaissance Europe possible.  These are important peoples in history.

I hope you’ll find something below interesting.

9/11

Documentary
Inside 9-11
(3 parts), by National Geographic

Book
The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11, by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

 

Islam

Documentaries
Science and Islam
(3 parts) with Jim Al-Khalili, by BBC
Explores the history of Islam during its golden age from around 9th to 12th century and its contribution to math, medicine, astronomy, and more
Inside Islam (3 parts), by The History Channel
Prophet Muhammad (3 parts), by BBC

Movie
Wadjda
The first feature length film directed by a female Saudi director, this is the story of a free spirited 11 year old Saudi girl who joins the Quran recitation contest at school with the dream of using the prize money to buy a bike and race with her neighbour, in a land that frowns on girls riding bikes.  It portrays the daily life of  Muslim women, including their devotion to the faith.

 

Iran

Documentary
Iran and the West
(3 parts), by BBC
30 years after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran’s relationship with the west is still uneasy.  This series describes the amicable relationship America had with Iran prior to the revolution, how the revolution changed this dynamic by the leader Ayatollah Khomeini, how his stern stance changed the power relations between the west and the middle east, and brings us to today.

 

Israel

Documentaries
The Story of the Jews (5 parts), with Simon Schama, by BBC
Israel and Palestine: a Divided Land (45 min), by Knowledge Unlimited – a concise introduction on the history of Israel
Defamation, directed by Yoav Shamir
Director Yoav Shamir, himself a Jew, wonders and explores in this film what anti-Semitism means in the world today.  He interviews ordinary Jews, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, and investigates anti-Semitic claims.  From it emerges a contrarian and entertaining view.

Book
Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond, by Charles Patterson

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Video: How We Got to Now – Interview with Steven Johnson and Fred Wilson

This book and documentary series by Steven Johnson came out recently.  At the launch event, Johnson was interviewed together with Fred Wilson, a Venture Capitalist, to talk about technology history.

I quite enjoyed the video – Johnson did most of the talking, as he should, about the many fascinating story of technology.  For instance, the first North American sewage system set up was in Chicago, but the city was too flat for water to flow properly into the ocean.  So the engineers lifted the city up, neighbourhood after neighbourhood, using jackscrews, sometimes while the residents were still in the building.  This, together with his describing the experience of filming the series, gave an intimate view of the past and the present.

While Johnson brings the historical perspective, Fred Wilson looks into the future and gets paid to bet on some of his views.  At around 17:40 in the video, he talks about some of the big challenges of our time – transportation in crowded cities, new form of energy that is renewable, sustainable, and not carbon based, and how laying out communication networks through underground means is getting more expensive and making ideas like mesh networks quite enticing.

Here’s the video.  Hope you’ll enjoy it, too: