Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Darwin

Charles Dickens, English Novelist (1812 - 1870)

This time of year, television and radio are preoccupied with Christmas stories and movies. But there is one Christmas story that is the greatest of them all--a delightful book and a classic of literature--and since I have been a child, reading or re-reading it has been one of my greatest pleasures of the jolly old season. I am glad to say that, thanks to the Internet and open-source idealism, this story is easily available and is available for free and from many sites.

One free e-text version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is available at Project Gutenberg. A lot of e-text copies of Dickens' writing are available at Project Gutenberg.

Project Gutenberg is a project to create digital versions of uncopyrighted books and other texts. The texts are created by volunteers who produce the texts and who proofread and format them.

Another site that presents free books and other texts is LibriVox. LibriVox differs from Project Gutenberg in that the mission of LibriVox is to provide free audiobooks rather than e-text versions of the original printed books. All the audiobooks are free and in the public domain, and the readings are done by volunteers. Each page for an audiobook includes the text itself. LibriVox is a wonderful resource for those learning English. It provides the opportunity to read the text while listening to a reading of the text. In the case of some popular books, such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol, there are sometimes multiple readings available, which also gives one the option of choosing a voice that suits the ear better or who one feels reads the text better. Here is a page that provides the audio files of a "dramatic reading" of A Christmas Carol from LibriVox. You will see that a link to the Project Gutenberg e-text version of the book is also on that page, so that you can find both conveniently.

Please explore Project Gutenberg and LibriVox! You will find extraordinary treasures and countless pleasures provided by both projects. And you will notice that they both adopt and provide the other's creations...which is how it should be!

On Thursday, December 22, 2011, I will read A Christmas Carol at the International Center, starting at 2:00 P.M. Please stop by if you can, and enjoy the atmosphere and narrative of the greatest of all Christmas stories: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Maya Plisetskaya in Ravel's _Bolero_

Maya Plisetskaya (Russian, born 1925)
In the news, in the world at large, around me--even within me--I see too much in human nature that fills me with dismay and horror. The evils of ideology, religion, superstition, misogyny, racism, nationalism, greed, malice, hate, violence, pettiness, corruption, hypocrisy, ignorance, wilful stupidity, egoism, egotism, and mental and physical laziness run amok wherever I look, and seem at times to increase precipitously as if in a feedback loop. It seems sometimes that hope and trust are groundless things, as sure as quicksand, as evanescent as mist in the morning sun. Faith in humanity, and in our  institutions, seems a bitter folly.

And then I encounter something new, something so worthwhile, so positive, so transcendently wonderful that my faith and hope are renewed and I see again the joy that can be found in that sometime spark that flares briefly a few times in every generation. A great artist, scientist, philosopher, or engineer can illumine his or her time and justify the human condition in its entirety for a while.

I wish to share one such paradigm-shifting encounter with you. A new star is in my personal firmament.

Just a few days ago, thanks to the extraordinary resource that is YouTube, I saw for the first time this performance of a dance to Maurice Ravel's Bolero by the incomparable Soviet-era ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya:

When this performance was filmed, she was 50 years old. Yes. She was born in 1925, and this performance was televised in 1975. So, just to further blow your mind, here she is, performing the Dying Swan, at 61 years of age:

I have talked about Maurice Ravel's Bolero many times in class, devoting more than one class period to discussing the music and playing a recording of it, to illustrate structure in musical composition to enhance a discussion of the influence of musical structure on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Those who were in my class at that time will hopefully remember it, and be able, without further comment by me here, to appreciate the wonder of the choreography by Maurice Bejart.

The idea behind the composition of Bolero is that Ravel challenges a traditional "rule" of composition: Don't present something in the same way more than three times. It is a sort of showpiece of virtuoso composing--Ravel is demonstrating that he has the compositional skill to restrict his composition to repetition without development, and yet maintain and intensify the listener's interest through the piece.

Ravel introduces a four-measure rhythmic theme on the snare drum that repeats unchanging through the whole piece, over and over without pausing or altering pattern. As the drum repeats the rhythmic pattern for the first time, the melodic theme is introduced by a flute over the repeating drum. When it finishes, the drum continues on in another iteration of the rhythmic theme, and the melodic theme is now repeated, but by a different instrument; and again; and again; each time a different instrument or combination of instruments. The music progresses in a sort of stepped ascent, increasing in loudness with each iteration of the melody, with the final, 18th, repetition being played by all the instruments together. The final repetition with the entire orchestra finishes on a dissonant chord, as if an architectural structure has been constructed higher and higher until it collapses under its own weight.

Bolero is a constant crescendo to the end, and is wonderfully layered. It gathers in intensity progressively, and the music builds in passion and energy until the paroxysm at the end. The choreographer understood this very well, and the choreography begins almost robotically, with a single arm visible, going through a range of movement rather like the scoop of a backhoe. The dancer is emotionless, her movements symmetric and mechanical, almost pantographic. Gradually, in mirror of the orchestra's gradual unveiling of orchestral color and power, more and more of the dancer's body is introduced, her mobility increases, and she becomes increasingly animated. She progresses from robot to ecstasy, from machine to passionate abandon.

Plisetskaya's interpretation of the role is luminous. I consider it one of the greatest performances, in any medium, by any performer, that I have ever seen. She is her own instrument, and she plays with technique, genius, and beauty. She is strong, intelligent, controlled, beautiful, and in the end, wild, passionate, and the restraint that so restricted her at the beginning is violently thrown away. Plisetskay truly groks both the music and the dance and is unerringly graceful. But the beauty and elegance and intelligence of her movements never flags. Plisetskaya is mesmerising and sublime.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Valentina Simukova

I am attaching an article on a young Soviet ballerina, Valentina Simukova, a Kirov student who died of measles shortly after the video of her was made when she was 16...of measles. Please watch the video; the knowledge that the dancer was only 16 at the time gave me goosebumps, and the thought that she died so young gave me tears.

She was forced to perform with a fever. After, the school didn't notice that she had not been to ballet class until she had missed three days. Somebody was sent, and she was found in bed. She had been alone, in bed, for three days. She had inflammation of the brain, and died in a few days. A sad story.

Higgs Boson?

Here is an article on today's report on the results from CERN concerning the search for the Higgs boson. Science as usual! It was not discovered and not ruled out, but the range of masses in which to look for it is being refined and narrowed. (It is as I predicted in class, and after when we stood outside before going home.) :-)

This is one of the great stories in science of our time, and should be of great interest to anyone who finds the universe to be more than the canvas on which their own portrait is painted.

Geminid Meteor Shower

Tonight (December 13), will be the peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Physicist Lawrence Krauss: Cosmic Connections

One of the best public speakers on science of our time is physicist Lawrence Krauss. This was a recent talk he gave in London entitled "Cosmic Connections".

Krauss is a brilliant, charismatic, and cultured man. I love his digressive and humorous mode of lecturing. He is energetic and passionate and his love of science and culture shine through. He is an exemplum of intellectual claritas.

[I am not entirely happy with the definition of claritas I linked to. It means transparency, a quality of crystalline purity through which light passes unchanged, clearness of thought, purity of spirit. To the Medieval mind, it was the purest beauty. Claritas was the medium through which light passed, which was the thought of God. Claritas was a word of importance to the High Modernists--Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce. To them it represented clarity of thought or intellection, purity of intention, perfection of form. Crystalline thought and structure in art, clarity of thought. Einstein and Maxwell represent the highest level of claritas, as do James Joyce, Bach, etc. Think of Debussy's Clair de Lune--clarity, purity, ineffable form, expressiveness, sublime intellection, clarity of emotional content; and think of the clarity of the night expressed in the music, and the perfect beauty of the moonlight. And note that the French word "clair" that Debussy used and the word "clarity" itself are both derived from the word "claritas". Medieval philosophers and theologians felt that the stars, the transparency of space, the ideal movement of the planets and stars--in toto, what they called the "music of the spheres"--represent the perfect thought of God made material, and in conjunction with Light and their concept of Soul...which was claritas. The English poet, John Milton, in his masterpiece, Samson Agonistes, uses the phrase "Light, the prime work of God" (line 70); prime here means "first" but also "best". He means claritas in the Medieval sense to which I refer, perfection of thought and form--both Light and Creation, through which light travels, and the clear perfection of God's being/thought, ideal and realized; and Word...God as poet and creator. Another example of claritas would be a Mozart concerto, sonata, or string quartet (or anything else Mozart composed). Bach's Art of Fugue (an agony of claritas), Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Maxwell's Equations.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When I Have Fears, by John Keats

John Keats (1795 - 1821)

In class, I mentioned the English poet, John Keats. The beautiful poem I spoke of is a sonnet:

When I Have Fears That I Might Cease to Be
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Russell's Teapot

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Russell's Teapot was mentioned in class a few weeks ago, so I think that I should provide a link that explains the reference for those unfamiliar with it: Russell's Teapot.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hi, Folks:

This post is to provide a link to an interview by Stephen Colbert with Neil deGrasse Tyson. It is about science. It is about education. It is an hour and twenty-four minutes long, and worth every moment spent in attending to it.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the finest ex tempore speaker on science that I have ever heard. His grace--and beauty--of thought, his eloquence, his generosity, and his human decency are extraordinary. He is magnificent. Watch this interview and listen to it well. Play it again--watch it or not, listen to it (I listened to it as I washed dishes and made and ate brunch and played with my dog; it is the ideas behind the words that must be grokked). Then play it again. And again. If you have vocabulary questions, save them and ask me, if you wish. If you have questions about the content, remember them to ask me, if you wish to ask me; or find someone else to ask who can help with the content of his talk, conceptually and concerning English vocabulary and meaning.

My admiration for Neil deGrasse Tyson is extensive, and I think he is one of the finest minds and one of the finest human beings of our time. I think that there is an enormous amount to be learned from his words and manner, and the clarity with which he presents his thoughts and the depth of his thoughts had me spontaneously applauding repeatedly as I watched this interview.

I hope that you will catch his meanings and be intrigued and entertained. I hope that you will learn from this video, if you have not yet explored the ideas discussed therein. I would like to assist, if I can. Please feel free to watch this interview and to bring questions to class. I would be pleased and honored to try to help you to enjoy his comments, and I wish the world at large might learn more from the fine mind of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


In class last night, I mentioned the type of animals classified as "sirenia" or "sirenians". For those unfamiliar with them, an example is the lovely manatee, an aquatic mammal that can be found in coastal Florida. Their range extends north into Georgia and south to Brazil, and they can be found elsewhere in the Caribbean to the entire eastern coast of Mexico. In 2006, there was a report of a manatee seen in New York City and Rhode Island. Here is a video of manatees:

These are wonderful creatures, and good to know about. The other type of sirenian still in existence is the dugong, whose range is from the Red Sea and East Africa to Melanesia and from Hainan to Australia.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

First Trip to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City in Queens

On Saturday, September 17, 2011, several of us from the class went to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City in Queens. Here are some photos from that trip:

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Vladimir Shilov for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

This remarkable sculpture is entitled "Other Lands".
Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.)

Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.

Sunset over Manhattan and the north point of Roosevelt Island.
(Thank you to Yevgeni Kralkin for this photograph.)

Let the Great World Spin, Chapter 1, Last Paragraph

This is me reading the last paragraph of the first chapter ("All Respects to Heaven, I Like It Here") of Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Freeman Dyson, free Astronomy Lecture

Freeman J. Dyson (b. 1923)

On Friday, October 21, 2011, the Amateur Astronomer Association of New York City will present the first in the lecture series they sponsor every year. This is a superb lecture series, and is free.

The lectures are held at the American Museum of Natural History, in the Kaufmann Theatre. The best way to get to the Kaufmann Theatre for these lectures is to go to the middle of the block on 77th Street. There is an arching stone stairway; the entrance is underneath that arching stairway. There your bags will be checked, and you can enter the museum. Ahead you will see a giant dug-out canoe, made by the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Turn left. You will be heading toward the "Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins", and you will see three skeletons in front of you: a chimpanzee, a Neanderthal human, and a modern human. Before you enter that exhibit hall, you will see a cafeteria to your left and a hall to your right with display cases of wonderful shells. Go up that hallway. Shortly, you will see another hallway to your left, and the theater entrance at the end of it. That is it!

The lecture inaugurating the 2011-2012 series will by by Freeman J. Dyson. Freeman Dyson is a legendary figure in science. He is one of the great figured of Twentieth-Century science, a colleague and friend of Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, John Wheeler, Kurt Goedel, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, John von Neumann, Kip Thorne, Carl Sagan, Oliver Sachs, etc.

The subject of Freeman Dyson's lecture is "Other Ways of Looking for Life in the Sky".

Freeman Dyson is 87 years old. The probability of having another opportunity to attend a free lecture by him is rapidly diminishing. Even if you are shy about attending lectures in English, and in particular lectures on a technical subject, such as science, I would strongly suggest taking the opportunity to attend the lecture. This is New York City! If you are not going to make use of the unique opportunities here, you might as well be somewhere else. And this lecture is something you can tell your children and grandchildren about some day, if they are interested in science or history, and for those of you that are interested in science already, this will be a very interesting event indeed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Picasso: "The Charnel House"

The Charnel House (painted 1944-1945)

[OK, I mis-remembered--she is under the table, not on it....]

Note that the table is a sketch, but the shadowed area, where the massacred family lie, is filled in; not with color, but a kind of monochrome, like a newspaper/magazine photo, but the table, which had been set for their breakfast while they were still alive is in rough sketch form. The horrific image, what we would see, their cruel deaths, is rendered in fuller detail, while the remnants of their lives, what had been so real to them while alive, just before the soldiers burst in, is a faded reality. Bread, a bowl, a pitcher (of milk?), a tablecloth in disarray--pulled down in the violence....

Note the detail of the mother's hair. Then look at how it falls from her body, to one raised hand of the baby, spilling--like liquid--into the other hand of the baby, then toward the baby's mouth; hair doesn't spill, like a liquid...but blood might....We realize suddenly that it is not hair, but the mother's blood; the baby's last nursing was macabre; it was the milk of Death, not Life. The blood spills from one hand directly down toward the baby's open mouth, ready to nurse--but the baby's other hand is above its mouth, as if to block the fall of blood into its mouth.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Language IS Seeing

Simplistic concepts of human nature and allowing superstition to dominate thinking about human nature (and Nature) leaves us with a black-and-white and impoverished view of ourselves and the universe. This video is profoundly exciting and fascinating:

[The next time I teach the Alice books, I'll include this video in the discussion....]

Monday, September 5, 2011

"Locksley Hall", by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892)

"Locksley Hall" is a poem by the Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson was the most famous poet writing in English in his day. No poet writing in English since has been so revered in his own lifetime. His work was adored throughout the Empire, and in the United States, Ireland, and by English-speaking colonials across the globe, as well. To modern ears he might seem a bit stilted now, particularly since the "barbaric yawp" of Whitman changed poetry in English forever and the High Modernists, led by Ezra Pound, threw off the tyranny of the rhymed pentameter ("that was the first heave") and other traditional forms for a less mannered and more natural music. Tennyson uses an unusual line in this poem, an octametric line with the last foot having a missing syllable [catalectic octameter]. It might sound ponderous to a modern ear, but was much admired in his day.

This poem is relevant to the blog here, because the title of Colum McCann's masterpiece of a novel, Let the Great World Spin, is gleaned from "Locksley Hall". You will find it in a fragment of a line toward the end of the poem.

There are also many famous lines in the poem, often misquoted. You might recognize some that you have heard before.

This poem describes a young man's disillusion and heartbreak, and his resolution to set out into the world nursing a deep inner wound; it describes both an excursion from and return to childhood and young heartbreak; in a meditative moment he has a vision of the future in which science and technology bring wonders and unity to Mankind, an expression of the Victorian ideal of Progress and its vision of hope and an Earthly salvation. Home, hearth, and heath are the starting point, but he steps out into the void of an unknown future, a sort of Victorian version of the Byronic hero.

I had to break the reading up into two parts because of YouTube's 15-minute limit. Here is Part 1:

Part 2:

Decades later, an older man, Tennyson composed a response, "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After", in which he looks ironically at his young man's bitter Romanticism, and described a settled, phlegmatic personal history greatly in contrast to the young man's dramatic angst, and a larger history in which the young man's glowing vision of Mankind's future, rooted in new technology and science, has gone awry. But Tennyson recapitulated the rhythmic structure of the original, looking back at youthful passion and folly, and yet in continuing the form also valuing his young idealism, however misplaced, in late-life retrospect.

Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann, Bloomsday 2010, at Ulysses Folk House
One of the great novelists of our time, the Irish writer, Colum McCann, wrote a masterpiece, Let the Great World Spin, a book that has been mentioned in my class many times.

Here is my reading of the introductory section that precedes the first chapter of Let the Great World Spin:

Here is the first part of the first chapter, "All Respects to Heaven, I Like It Here" (YouTube has a 15-minute limit on the length of YouTube videos, so I have to break chapters up into parts):

I will add other chapters/sections over time....

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas, Welsh Poet

Dylan Thomas (1914 - 1953)

"Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas is one of my favorite poems. It was the first poem I taught at the International Center, in 1985.
Here is a recording of the poem:
You might want to read along with it as you listen. Here is the text:

Fern Hill

     Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
     About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
       The night above the dingle starry,
         Time let me hail and climb
       Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
     And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
     And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
         Trail with daisies and barley
       Down the rivers of the windfall light.

     And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
     About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
       In the sun that is young once only,
         Time let me play and be
       Golden in the mercy of his means,
     And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
     Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
         And the sabbath rang slowly
       In the pebbles of the holy streams.

     All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
     Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
       And playing, lovely and watery
         And fire green as grass.
       And nightly under the simple stars
     As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
     All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
       Flying with the ricks, and the horses
         Flashing into the dark.

     And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
     With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
       Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
         The sky gathered again
       And the sun grew round that very day.
     So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
     In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
       Out of the whinnying green stable
         On to the fields of praise.

     And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
     Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
       In the sun born over and over,
         I ran my heedless ways,
       My wishes raced through the house high hay
     And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
     In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
       Before the children green and golden
         Follow him out of grace.

     Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
     Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
       In the moon that is always rising,
         Nor that riding to sleep
       I should hear him fly with the high fields
     And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
     Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
         Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons is a children's book by the English author, Arthur Ransome.

Chapter 1. Part 1 (the video was too long for YouTube to accept, so I had to break it up into two videos).

This is the second part of Chapter 1.

The epigraph to Chapter 1 is a quote from one of the most famous poems by the English poet, John Keats (1795 - 1821). Keats was 26 when he died. The poem is titled "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer", and the last four lines of the sonnet are quoted.  The last line is very famous. Here is the text of the poem:

 Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
 And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
 Round many western islands have I been
 Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
 Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
 That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
 Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
 Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
 He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
 Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
 Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Four Quartets: A Different Tack on Some Familiar Lines

On the left is a web built by a 17-day-old European house spider, Zygiella x-notata.
On the right is a web constructed by a 188-day-old spider of the same species.
Researchers suspect that elderly spiders, like elderly humans, might suffer from neurological deterioration resulting from the aging process.

These lines are from the second movement of "East Coker", the second quartet of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:

          ...There is, it seems to us,
     At best, only a limited value
     In the knowledge derived from experience.

And so these lines, also from "East Coker",

          ...Do not let me hear
     Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,...

might also apply to spiders....


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bach, Karl Richter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Tod. Consummatum est.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata BMV 4, Christ Lag in Todes Banden (Christ Lay in Death's Bonds) conducted by Karl Richter.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b. 1925)

This is Versus V, "Hier ist das Rechte Osterlamm", with the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soloist. I have mentioned this in class many times over the years. Watch the score and listen at three minutes and three seconds to about 3 minutes and ten seconds. You will hear Fischer-Dieskau, in glorious voice, sing the word "tod[e]" ("death"), and as he holds that whole note over two measures and a beat, the orchestra plays a chord at the beginning of the second measure of the held note, making the shape of a cross with the score.

This is one of the greatest glories of the human legacy. Please listen and watch the score. I hope you enjoy, and very much so.

East Meets West...Once Again, in Cambridge

The Rachmaninoff Vespers performed by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge. Number 5, Nyne Otpushchaeshi (Nunc Dimittis). This is one of the most beautiful compositions I have ever heard.

The numbering is confusing. There is an un-numbered introductory piece, which calls the chorus to worship. What follows are 15 canticles (a "canticle" is a song or chant with Biblical text--not from the Psalms--that forms part of a church service). So, the 5th canticle is the 6th track on the CD. The recording linked above is the 5th canticle. It is also Rachmaninoff's personal favorite, and he specified that he wanted that particular piece sung at his own funeral.

Please listen and enjoy.

Contemporary U.S. Composer, John Adams

I'd like to introduce a contemporary U.S. composer, John Adams. I have enjoyed his compositions very much over the years, particularly the instrumental parts of his opera, Nixon in China.

This is a link to a recording on Youtube of "The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra" from Nixon in China. I have very special and personal associations with this recording in particular, and hope that others will enjoy it, too.

The album I particularly enjoy is of the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Edo de Waart from 1987. Originally I had this on LP, and I also have it on CD. This album was the first CD I ever gave my daughter, when she was very little, her first-ever recording. (So, we have three copies of this recording, the only album for which we have three copies.)

An early success by John Adams is the lovely composition called Shaker Loops. It is a composition only for strings in four movements. It can be played by ensembles of any size from a string septet to full orchestra.
I. Shaking and Trembling.
II. Hymning Slews.
III. Loops and Verses. (The link has the last two movements in one Youtube post.)
IV. A Final Shaking.

John Adams won the Pulizter Prize in 2003 for his composition, On the Transmigration of Souls, to commemorate the attacks of 9/11. (Don't be surprised. The sound of New York City noise, what sounds like a tape loop or sound sample of a diggery-doo, footsteps and voices at the beginning are part of the composition.) This is the complete New York City Philharmonic recording that won many awards in 2005 in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. There is also a Youtube video of a part of a Dutch TV broadcast of a performance conducted by Edo de Waarts. This is haunting, lovely, lovely music.

[A great book that harmonizes with this music is Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, one of my all-time favorite novels; I consider it the masterpiece of the English novel of our time.]

A more recent composition by John Adams is his opera Doctor Atomic, about the physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Adams later adapted the opera into a symphony, too. Here is "Batter My Heart", an aria from the opera Doctor Atomic.

Thank You

I would like to thank everyone who joined me at the reading from James Joyce's Ulysses at Swift Hibernian Lounge last night. I hope that everyone who attended enjoyed the event.

I did.

I know that some photos were taken....If anyone would like to, I'd appreciate it you posted them here for us all to remember the adventure by!

Renewing Old Friendships: Juno and Avos

This is a poem by Bret Harte (1836 - 1902), a writer from the U.S. The romantic story of Concepcion Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov has been told by several American writers, and more famously, in recent times by the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky who wrote the libretto for the Russian rock opera Juno and Avos, the music for which was composed by Alexey Rybnikov. Bret Harte's poem centers on Concepcion Arguello, whereas Juno and Avos centers around Rezanov. All of the versions of the story describe Concepcion's love, which lasted to the end of her days, though she never saw him again. The stories are very different. One version says that she might actually never have known of his death...waiting for him until her death 51 years later. Another version says that she found out a year later, but decided to be celibate for the rest of her life. In either case, a very romantic story, that seems to be historically borne out.




Looking seaward, o'er the sand-hills stands the fortress, old and quaint,
By the San Francisco friars lifted to their patron saint,—

Sponsor to that wondrous city, now apostate to the creed,
On whose youthful walls the Padre saw the angel's golden reed;

All its trophies long since scattered, all its blazon brushed away;
And the flag that flies above it but a triumph of to-day.

Never scar of siege or battle challenges the wandering eye,
Never breach of warlike onset holds the curious passer-by;

Only one sweet human fancy interweaves its threads of gold
With the plain and homespun present, and a love that ne'er grows old;

Only one thing holds its crumbling walls above the meaner dust,—
Listen to the simple story of a woman's love and trust.


Count von Resanoff, the Russian, envoy of the mighty Czar,
Stood beside the deep embrasures, where the brazen cannon are.

He with grave provincial magnates long had held serene debate
On the Treaty of Alliance and the high affairs of state;

He from grave provincial magnates oft had turned to talk apart
With the Commandante's daughter on the questions of the heart,

Until points of gravest import yielded slowly one by one,
And by Love was consummated what Diplomacy begun;

Till beside the deep embrasures, where the brazen cannon are,
He received the twofold contract for approval of the Czar;

Till beside the brazen cannon the betrothed bade adieu,
And from sallyport and gateway north the Russian eagles flew.


Long beside the deep embrasures, where the brazen cannon are,
Did they wait the promised bridegroom and the answer of the Czar;

Day by day on wall and bastion beat the hollow, empty breeze,—
Day by day the sunlight glittered on the vacant, smiling seas:

Week by week the near hills whitened in their dusty leather cloaks,—
Week by week the far hills darkened from the fringing plain of oaks;

Till the rains came, and far breaking, on the fierce southwester tost,
Dashed the whole long coast with color, and then vanished and were lost.

So each year the seasons shifted,—wet and warm and drear and dry
Half a year of clouds and flowers, half a year of dust and sky.

Still it brought no ship nor message,—brought no tidings, ill or meet,
For the statesmanlike Commander, for the daughter fair and sweet.

Yet she heard the varying message, voiceless to all ears beside:
"He will come," the flowers whispered; "Come no more," the dry hills sighed.

Still she found him with the waters lifted by the morning breeze,—
Still she lost him with the folding of the great white-tented seas;

Until hollows chased the dimples from her cheeks of olive brown,
And at times a swift, shy moisture dragged the long sweet lashes down;

Or the small mouth curved and quivered as for some denied caress,
And the fair young brow was knitted in an infantine distress.

Then the grim Commander, pacing where the brazen cannon are,
Comforted the maid with proverbs, wisdom gathered from afar;

Bits of ancient observation by his fathers garnered, each
As a pebble worn and polished in the current of his speech:

"'Those who wait the coming rider travel twice as far as he;'
'Tired wench and coming butter never did in time agree;'

"'He that getteth himself honey, though a clown, he shall have flies;'
'In the end God grinds the miller;' 'In the dark the mole has eyes;'

"'He whose father is Alcalde of his trial hath no fear,'—
And be sure the Count has reasons that will make his conduct clear."

Then the voice sententious faltered, and the wisdom it would teach
Lost itself in fondest trifles of his soft Castilian speech;

And on "Concha" "Conchitita," and "Conchita" he would dwell
With the fond reiteration which the Spaniard knows so well.

So with proverbs and caresses, half in faith and half in doubt,
Every day some hope was kindled, flickered, faded, and went out.


Yearly, down the hillside sweeping, came the stately cavalcade,
Bringing revel to vaquero, joy and comfort to each maid;

Bringing days of formal visit, social feast and rustic sport,
Of bull-baiting on the plaza, of love-making in the court.

Vainly then at Concha's lattice, vainly as the idle wind,
Rose the thin high Spanish tenor that bespoke the youth too kind;

Vainly, leaning from their saddles, caballeros, bold and fleet,
Plucked for her the buried chicken from beneath their mustang's feet;

So in vain the barren hillsides with their gay serapes blazed,—
Blazed and vanished in the dust-cloud that their flying hoofs had raised.

Then the drum called from the rampart, and once more, with patient mien,
The Commander and his daughter each took up the dull routine,—

Each took up the petty duties of a life apart and lone,
Till the slow years wrought a music in its dreary monotone.


Forty years on wall and bastion swept the hollow idle breeze,
Since the Russian eagle fluttered from the California seas;

Forty years on wall and bastion wrought its slow but sure decay,
And St. George's cross was lifted in the port of Monterey;

And the citadel was lighted, and the hall was gayly drest,
All to honor Sir George Simpson, famous traveler and guest.

Far and near the people gathered to the costly banquet set,
And exchanged congratulations with the English baronet;

Till, the formal speeches ended, and amidst the laugh and wine,
Some one spoke of Concha's lover,—heedless of the warning sign.

Quickly then cried Sir George Simpson: "Speak no ill of him, I pray!
He is dead. He died, poor fellow, forty years ago this day,—

"Died while speeding home to Russia, falling from a fractious horse.
Left a sweetheart, too, they tell me. Married, I suppose, of course!

"Lives she yet?" A deathlike silence fell on banquet, guests, and hall,
And a trembling figure rising fixed the awestruck gaze of all.

Two black eyes in darkened orbits gleamed beneath the nun's white hood;
Black serge hid the wasted figure, bowed and stricken where it stood.

"Lives she yet?" Sir George repeated. All were hushed as Concha drew
Closer yet her nun's attire. "Senor, pardon, she died, too!"

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bloomsday 2011!

James Joyce (1882 - 1941)

At 11:30 AM, the day's activities start at Ulysses Folk House on Stone Street in lower Manhattan, near South Ferry:

Then, starting at noon, the day's greatest event, the 30th Annual Bloomsday on Broadway:
30th Annual Bloomsday on Broadway: "Thu, Jun 16 at 12 pm — On Thursday, June 16th, 2011, we celebrate the 30th annual BLOOMSDAY ON BROADWAY James Joyce ULYSSES marathon, staged by Isaiah Sheffer. It will involve over 100 actors, including some leading stars of stage and screen, and will last over twelve hours, from noon until Molly Bloom's final 'Yes!' sometime after midnight. Since the events of June 16, 1904, described in the 18 episodes of ULYSSES also happen on a Thursday, this anniversary will sample ALL 18 EPISODES, giving beginning readers of ULYSSES a sampling of the diverse styles employed by James Joyce, and giving experienced Joyceans a very satisfying literary feast."

Molly Bloom (photos: Louie Correia)
Radio Bloomsday 2011 on WBAI:
This year's Radio Bloomsday will be broadcast live from 7 pm to 2 am on Thursday, June 16, 2011 on the Pacifica Radio Network, wbai 99.5 FM in New York City, KPFK 90.7 in Los Angeles and online at anywhere in the world. Artists interpret James Joyce's Ulysses.

This year's broadcast includes artist from New York, Los Angeles, Dublin, and London. Performers for this year's Radio Bloomsday include Anne Enright, Wallace Shawn, Roma Downey, Jerry Stiller, Alec Baldwin, Paul Muldoon, Conn Horgan, Marie-Louise Bowe, Charles Busch, Paul Dooley, Marc Maron, Bob Odenkirk, Marc Singer, John O'Callaghan, Jaason Simmons, Brian O'Doherty, Aaron Beall, Con Horgan, Amy Stiller, T. Ryder Smith, Kate Valk, Jim Fletcher, Janet Coleman, David Dozer, and many more.

Radio Bloomsday is written and directed by Caraid O'Brien, who also performs the complete Molly Bloom monologue. The Artistic Director is Janet Coleman. Larry Josephson and The Radio Foundation is the producer. Mark Torres of The Pacifica Archives recorded actors in Los Angeles for this broadcast.

Email us at
Follow molly on Twitter @mollyinbed
or Radio Bloomsday on Facebook

[You can listen to some of last year's readings on Radio Bloomsday on WBAI HERE.]

And, last of all, on Saturday, June 18, 2011, the final Bloomsday event of 2011:

The second annual Bloomsday in Brooklyn event will be in Park Slope, and will start at 2:00 PM at an Irish pub called the Black Sheep Pub, at 428 Bergen Street in Brooklyn. Their phone number is (718) 638-1109. The nearest train is the Bergen Street Station of the 2, 3, 4 trains.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Logical Fallacies: "Begging the Question"

I am presenting the logical fallacy called "Begging the Question" today, because the name is awkward and counterintuitive, and because I recently encountered examples of this fallacy being employed.

In an earlier post, I introduced logical fallacies, and said that I would be discussing others in this blog. A logical fallacy is an argument, presented in an attempt to convince someone of a position on some issue, that inherently relies on false reasoning. I previously gave examples, such as "ad Hominem", "Post Hoc Ergo Proctor Hoc", etc. Aristotle classified many logical fallacies by type, and in the centuries since, philosophers, rhetoricians, computer scientists, scientists, mathematicians, and logicians have made great advances in the study of logic and further identified and categorized types of logical fallacies.

Identifying logical fallacies can sometimes be difficult because of the emotions attached to the issues at stake, sometimes because the person using them has authority or is subtle, and most of all because many arguments are composed of more than one fallacy at a time.

The utility of compiling a catalogue of logical fallacies is that having them at hand mentally enables one to identify dishonest arguments employed by others, and it is quicker than copying down a statement, translating it into symbols, then applying modern symbolic logic to check for the truth or falsity of the argument. That can be done, and is a wonderful skill to have...but it is slow, and in a public debate or a discussion with friends or classmates, it is not practicable. For analyzing a political speech the next day, symbolic logic is perfect, and will focus attention on the exact points of error. One can, however, respond immediately to a claim with counters such as "that's an ad Hominem!" or "you are Begging the Question." Being caught in a logical fallacy can cost one credibility in a debate.

"Begging the Question" sounds like it means that an unanswered question should be asked, but it does not. After all, "to beg" means to ask for something from a position of desperation, or to request something from a person in authority. "Doctor, I have no money, but I beg you--save my child!" In court, it means to request an action or forbearance from a judge: "Your Honor, the Plaintiff begs the Court's indulgence while I locate the exact passage in the document in exhibit." It is also used in very polite society: "I beg your pardon".

The phrase "begging the question" was introduced in a 16th-Century English translation of a Latin translation of Aristotle; the phrase in Latin was "petitio principii", which might also be translated as "petitioning the premise" or "requesting the beginning". It means that the argument begins as assuming as agreed-upon a point that needs to be proved:

  1. Skinny blondes are the prettiest women.
  2. Men prefer to be with the prettiest women.
  3. Therefore, blondes have more fun!

The first line begs the question. (Perhaps the second line, too?)

Here's another example:

  1. In 1947, a flying saucer crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.
  2. The Air Force collected debris and took it away.
  3. Therefore, the government possesses secret alien technology.

This is Begging the Question. Need I explain? :-)

Here's another example, not in syllogistic format: "Malicious ghosts are very bad, because they can move things around in your house and they have harmful intentions." This begs the question of the existence of ghosts; it also begs the question of whether ghosts could affect the material world if they were to exist; it also begs the question of whether there can be intent, good or bad, after death; also whether the dead would even have an interest in things post mortem.

A related logical fallacy is called "Circular Reasoning". An argument is circular when the conclusion is one of the premises, even if the wording has been changed: "The government hides the truth about UFOs from the people. That they deny having alien artifacts shows they are hiding something." [This is primarily Circular Reasoning, but it also begs some questions.]

  1. Scientists deny whatever doesn't fit in their world-view.
  2. Many people say they have encountered Sasquatch.
  3. Scientists deny Sasquatch because it doesn't fit their theories.

The conclusion is really a re-wording of line 1, rather than a conclusion that follows from lines one and two, making it an example of Circular Reasoning. (Of course, it is also an example of Begging the Question.)

  1. Skinny blondes are the prettiest.
  2. Many men like skinny blondes,
  3. because skinny blondes are the prettiest.
 What is this last one?