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.]