Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Rest of Rachmaninoff

A while back in a piece called "The Rest of Tchaikovsky" I talked about filling in some of the gaping holes in my music collection with the help of eMusic. Well, I'm still at it, but this time I browsed the vacant aisles of one of our few remaining music stores armed with a Christmas gift card that was burning a hole in my pocket.

Poor old Specs Music. Originally "Specs Records," then belatedly and pointlessly renamed "Specs Records and Tapes" (remember tapes?), and now called "Specs Music" even though the old sign is still on the wall, it used to be my home away from home on weekends back when most of us still limited our music choices to what happened to be available in the bins. Back then only real hi-fi nerds bothered to place special orders for things they  had found in catalogs or in advertisements in magazines, and only they would pay the premium prices such service commanded. Over the years flipping through records changed to flipping through CD's, but now most of us are scrolling through screens instead.

To their credit, Specs has outlasted the mighty Virgin Music that moved into the mall down the street, and they have updated their browsing with digital scanners and earphones so you can instantly hear the disk in your hand without opening it. They even absorbed the competing used-CD store that opened right next door to them, and now offer used CD's in the same bins with new ones. If they wanted to rename themselves again, they could call it "Specs CD's, DVD's, and Video Games," but it probably would be for naught since consumers have moved on to MP3's and streaming media that don't require any shelf space. You are forced to the conclusion that Virgin closed first because they saw the writing on the wall first.

But I digress. The point of this is Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose complete three symphonies I acquired for a decent price on a 2-CD set. I've long been a fan of his Second Symphony, which is perhaps the single most beautiful concoction ever devised for a full orchestra to play. But I'd never become familiar with the First and Third, so these were new treats. I'm already on speaking terms with number 1, but number 3 is a bit stand-offish, with lots of percussive bluster, so it will take longer to get to know it.

It's been a great pleasure to explore Rachmaninoff again. The last of the 19th century Romantic school, he was an anachronism who lasted far into the 20th. But in many ways he surpassed those who went before, such as Tchaikovsky, his teacher and early influence whose untimely death came as a great shock to the young student. Besides extending the tonal and emotional range of music even further, if that was possible, he added his own prodigious abilities as a performer. His four piano concertos remain some of the most demanding yet lyrical in the repertoire, and it was his skill at the keyboard that enabled him to invent such dense and complex yet exceedingly melodic scores.

Moving from the music store back online to eMusic, I uncovered Vespers, also known as The All Night Vigil, Rachmaninoff's unique collection of pieces for a capella chorus. Rich in harmonic textures, with solo voices rising against the crowd, it references liturgical music from the Russian Orthodox Church, which must have held special nostalgia for the expatriate composer. Having left Russia after the 1918 revolution, he lived variously in Europe and the United States, where he died in 1943, in Beverly Hills of all places, temporarily in exile again from his favorite home in Switzerland.

These "new" works (to me) sent me back to listen to some of my other Rachmaninoff favorites -- the tone poem, Isle of the Dead, and the three Symphonic Dances, his last completed work. These are often recorded together, and taken that way they almost comprise a fourth symphony, with the Isle of the Dead forming a brooding first movement like a premonition of impending doom, including one of his many quotations of the 13th century Latin hymn called Dies Irae, or "days of wrath," that was all the rage during the Black Plague. This is a theme that would bind it together with the other movements to form a whole, since it appears yet again -- triumphantly this time -- in the last of the Dances.

Something else I intend to explore is a recent transcription of my old friend the Second Symphony into a new Fifth piano concerto. You can read here how Alexander Warenberg, a contemporary expatriate Russian pianist and composer, was commissioned to re-write the symphony to feature a piano, while boiling the four movements down to the concerto's traditional three. Love it or hate it, you can't deny it's an interesting experiment, and the music is fantastic either way. Rachmaninoff may be gone, but he's still giving us new material. 

Who says classical music is dead? Seems to me it's alive and thriving. Now, let me leave you humming this cadenza from the Third Piano Concerto:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why I Am Not An Atheist

There's a wonderful poem by Frank O'Hara called "Why I Am Not a Painter," which, by giving an example of what poetry is not, gives as good a demonstration of what it is as I have ever heard. [This is the painting he refers to. >>]

So thinking about atheists recently, following their support for Darwin Day, I wondered why I'm not one of them. After all, their position is really about questioning, and I've always believed we learn more by questioning than we do by accepting things on faith. I'm also a believer in science and its method of arriving at the truth by observation. So why shouldn't I expect some sort of physical proof of God's existence? Bertrand Russell, for example, when asked what he would say if he were to die and find himself confronting God, replied, "I would say, 'You didn't give us enough evidence.'"

There's nothing wrong with faith itself, but there was nothing wrong with believing the Earth was flat, either -- except that, since it wasn't, we probably wouldn't ever have learned to orbit around it, or depart from it for the moon. Now that we know how spherical it is, we can have faith in that while remaining open to whatever other possibilities there might be, such as a warp in the four-dimensional space-time continuum.

My first encounter with the concept of atheism came when I was about fifteen. Over summer vacation I had read The Story of Philosophy, by Will and Ariel Durant, and then discovered a book on my father's shelves called A Game of Chess (author unknown). This turned out not to be about chess at all. Instead it was a philosophical dialog conducted between two men over a chess board. One of them (the hero) was an atheist, and the other (I guess you would call him the goat) seemed to have been placed there by the author to feed the atheist exactly the arguments that he could refute with wit and alacrity.

As you can tell, the book was pretty bad, even in sophomoric terms. I don't remember, but no doubt the story ended with the atheist declaring "checkmate!" Nevertheless I read the whole thing, even though the further I went the more I felt certain that I disagreed. No, it was stronger than that. Something inside me disagreed, giving me almost a physical sense of claustrophobia and discomfort.

You might ask at this point what my father was doing with this book on his shelf. Well, that would be a long story, but the short version is that after having been raised as a Catholic he found himself suddenly transported into the later stages of the Second World War, where all the Catholics, Protestants, etc., remaining in Europe were doing their best to murder one another. After being shot himself, he was transported back to what later veterans would call "The World" and plunked into Columbia University where he was exposed to other philosophies of all kinds. Let's just say his faith was tested, and it flunked. By the time he had married my mother he no longer felt comfortable as a Catholic and had stopped attending church. He felt strongly enough about it that he eventually persuaded my mom to follow suit, with the result that I have only the foggiest early memories of ever attending mass.

Later they went church shopping, largely so that my sister and I could have something to call a religious background of our own. They settled on the Unitarians. This was partly because the organist liked to play Bach, and they were both fans of Albert Schweitzer, but also because of the inclusiveness and open-mindedness of the Unitarians, who, like the Quakers, find room even for those of no faith at all. This varies a lot from one congregation to another, but the one in Miami was so progressive that in the 1970's the minister created a furor by coming out in favor of legalizing marijuana, though as he put it, "I still have my doubts about LSD."

I've written elsewhere about my first exposure to the Unitarian church school, which involved lots of natural history (the teacher was also a middle-school science teacher), classical mythology, and comparative religion. When I went back in my teens it was a place to learn about Bob Dylan, sing folk songs, and debate Civil Rights issues with local political candidates. But the point is that this was the foundation for my own spiritual search, which began with Alan Watts teaching zen on TV and then the Durant's introduction to philosophy, and continued on through the years up till today. The Unitarians didn't ever tell me what to think; they gave me information and encouraged me to think for myself. Eventually I ended up as a Quaker for the same reason.

Meanwhile my dad, ever restless, had abandoned the Unitarians as "a bunch of neurotic intellectuals." Somewhere in the void beyond he experimented with atheism before drawing back, unable to take the leap, and declaring himself firmly agnostic. (That position, being firmly on the fence, has always seemed to me an indication that you would like to believe in something but have not yet found a compelling argument.) Late in his life he dabbled with astrology and formed a conviction that the planets were against him -- especially the distant, slow-moving ones. Yet there are traces in the poetry he left behind that he experienced a sense of grandeur when contemplating the universe that held the same place for him that God, prayer, and religious grace hold for the believer.

Which brings us back to poetry, where we began. No doubt this could be a lot shorter if I wrote it as a poem, but it's got me thinking that the real answer to Why I Am Not An Atheist has as much to do with poetry as it does with philosophy and religion. It's emotional and experiential, not logical and rational. Since becoming a Quaker I've become comfortable with the idea that "there is that of God in everyone." To me this means much more than having something like life or a soul given to me as a gift; it is an immediate awareness of a direct connection to, and unity with, a universal spirit. In Hinduism they use the term atman, which means God as manifested in the human -- God as existing in the human -- and that means every human, not just the rare incarnations of the divine such as Jesus or Krishna.

So that part of me that became so uncomfortable when I read the atheist book was the deepest part of myself, my most true nature, and the part that is one with that universal spirit. It's hard to see because it is so obvious -- we are aware, and we are aware that we are aware. Through us the universe itself is alive and aware. We are parts of a living, conscious thing, and we know it because we are living and conscious. And quite simply, no matter how much atheists may speak of human values, it seems to me that the universe they inhabit is dead, a lonely meaningless place in which life arose as a fluke and must do the best it can against the void that surrounds it. However much we may have in common in this view, we are all separate, rather than being equal manifestations of the same cosmic urge to intelligence.

Neitzche's famous declaration that "God is dead" may have had some sociological importance back in the 19th century, but it makes as much sense to me as declaring "I am dead." And that's why that book about atheism made me so uncomfortable. It was endless arguments for why that thing within me did not exist -- and all the while that thing within me was protesting, like someone being buried alive in a coffin, "No -- no -- I'm alive -- I'm in here!"

Cosmologists, wondering why the physical constants of the universe appear to be perfectly arranged to make life possible, are forced to consider the possibility that they are the way they are simply because we exist -- we can only observe a universe in which life is possible, even if there might be other universes in which life, or even stars and galaxies, are not possible. Quite likely we will never know if this set of fortuitous conditions is just one of an infinite series of random possibilities, or if a powerful Demiurge compels it to be only this way.

But it doesn't really matter if there are other lifeless universes or not. Just as there are lifeless planets sharing the space around our own sun, we could be surrounded by other lifeless universes and yet we would still be alive. It comes down to the pure, age-old question: Why is there Everything instead of Nothing?

Those who would seek a rational explanation for this are probably doomed to disappointment. Like the forlorn characters in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, who are driven to deny their own deepest beliefs, they may eventually come around or be brought up short by some impasse that convinces them.

The vastness that contains us has burst into being somehow of its own volition, and whatever force compels it to exist has brought us into being to bear witness to the miracle. Let us then watch, and listen, and be.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Music of the Spheres

Making joyful noise ...

One thing notably absent from Quaker meetings is music. At ours, the only exceptions are the annual Christmas celebration at which carols are sung, and the rare occasions where one of our members is moved to give his message in song form -- a unique and pleasant form of vocal ministry.

I've been known to feel musical envy for those other religions, like the Catholic and Lutheran, which have generated such rich troves of sacred music. I suppose I got this from my parents, both classical musicians, to whom it was so important that it was the main reason we ended up being Unitarians for a time -- because the organist played a lot of Bach. Reason enough!

Of course, not all musicians are as profoundly spiritual as J.S. Bach, who was known for inscribing the title pages of his works, "To the Glory of God In the Highest." Yet in a very fundamental way, the impulse to sing, to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," must have been there at the earliest beginnings of human music. It certainly formed the foundation of Western European music, the notes and scales and rhythms and forms of which continue to define what music is, however hard we may try to twist it into something new.

What else is there to do when contemplating Divinity, or the Universal, or simply a beautiful day, but to sing its praises? So perhaps it is not surprising that I often find myself with music on the brain as I sit in supposed silence in our meeting for worship. Today it was Tchaikovsky -- the achingly beautiful slow movement to his First Symphony -- and later part of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, where the priest sings, "Let us sing the Lord a simple song ... for God is the simplest of all." But other times it has been Bach, or Beethoven ("On your knees now, O millions? Do you sense your Maker, world?"), or any number of the other selections that my brain has become stuffed with over the years.

I ended up thinking of an interview I saw with a physicist (I believe it was Phillip Morrison) who was asked, if we ever established contact with a civilization of alien beings, what would we have to say to each other? He answered that one thing we might do was to compare accomplishments. For example, he said with a smile, we might say, "We've got Bach's B-minor Mass ... what have you got?"

Well, that sounds like bragging to me. But it does raise the prospect that if such communication ever does happen -- and it may -- then perhaps it will be the music of the alien civilization that speaks to us most directly, and tells us that we have a common origin, and that we share the same desire to praise That From Which We Came. In short, it could be the most profound thing we have to say to each other, though it will come as news to neither of us.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin

Attacked by the religious right, he could be done in by the atheists ...

Elsewhere in this meandering blog I have railed against those who would have us throw science out of our schools and embrace a world view which is on a par with believing in a flat Earth sitting motionless at the center of the universe.

But I'm equally irked to hear that a local Atheist Society is vocally supporting a celebration of Darwin Day. Don't the Creationists -- I mean, Intelligent Designers -- have enough arguments already without a bunch of disbelievers feeding the frenzy by confirming the idea that Darwin's theory is tantamount to godlessness? This is like a US political candidate getting an endorsement from the Communist Party -- thanks for your support, guys, but ...

Now, I don't mean to demean atheists by comparing them to Communists. Even though Karl Marx famously condemned all religion as "the opiate of the masses," and even though the Soviet Union worked diligently to stamp out religious practices, there is of course no reason why a believer in democracy can't also be a disbeliever in divinity -- and many are. But my complaint is that by publicly endorsing Darwin's theory at a time when it is a source of such contention, they are only making things more difficult. And by appearing to embrace the theory as evidence to support atheism they are doing as much harm to the truth as those who consider it a negation of religion.

The reality is that Darwin described a mechanism to explain the observed fact that species change and evolve over time. He realized that human beings were an integral part of this process, and must have emerged from earlier ancestors just as all other plants and animals have done over the billions of years since life first came into being on our planet. Anticipating the furor that could result over this concept, he waited twenty years before publishing it, and was nearly beaten into print by Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the same theory independently. This is yet another example of how the truth will emerge when the time comes, regardless of who takes the credit. It would be no different to us today if it were called Wallace's Theory of Evolution.

As products of their age, neither man was an atheist. It was a time when science and religion were seen to cooperate more than compete. Wallace in fact had some wild ideas of spirituality that made him suspect in the scientific community. But their work was not done either to prove or disprove the existence of God. It was simply to learn more about how our natural world works, and to learn more about our place in that world.

So I have similar questions to pose to both ends of the radical spectrum. If you are a fundamentalist Christian, can you not still find wonder -- even greater wonder -- in considering a God who brought a whole universe into being in a single explosive instant, and who molded its stars, planets, and living things with a single set of basic rules that made it inevitable that beings like ourselves would arise from the dust? And if you are an atheist, can you not find the same sense of wonder in contemplating that same universe, and can you not admit that your sense of awe in the presence of that reality corresponds to what the religious feel in the presence of their God?

We are all human. We all belong to the same world in the same cosmos. And none of us really knows why. All the rest is argument about terminology.

Google celebrates Darwin

Sunday, February 08, 2009

It's (Almost) Alive!

Life in a test tube? Coming right up ...

Way back when I was taking high school biology our text book described an intriguing experiment where a scientist had cooked up a laboratory version of the primordial soup in which life was supposed to have originated. After heating it and zapping it with artificial lightning bolts in a piece of sealed glassware, he examined the results and discovered that primitive amino acids -- the building blocks of proteins, and eventually DNA -- had been formed. It was easy to imagine that we were only a few steps away from creating "life in a test tube," one of the big dreams of science fiction buffs everywhere.

The reality has turned out to be a bit trickier. Even though we have learned a great deal more about how cells work, and even though we have decoded DNA and begun to play with it like a set of tinker-toys to create new combinations, we don't seem to be a lot closer to actually creating living organisms from inanimate chemicals.

But now in this article New Scientist reports a further breakthough on the road to discovering how life may have originated. Beginning with a synthetic molecule they created themselves, with the ability to assemble a copy of itself from short segments of RNA, they were able to show a working model of a self-replicating molecular unit which, while not quite alive, fulfills one of life's primary functions, and may be an example of the kind of step that preceeded the first living organisms.

Even more fascinating, they were able to demonstrate a low level form of evolution by allowing competing molecules to vie with each other for available raw materials. Those with the best ability to make copies of themselves soon dominated the others.

This marvelously simple demonstration of the power of natural selection shows how the process may have played a key role even in the original formation of life from proto-organic compounds. Once again we must stand in awe of a cosmos in which this drive toward life and higher consciousness appears to be built into the most fundamental laws, leading with inevitability from atoms to stars, stars to planets, simple molecules to life, and life to intelligence.