P is for Polyphony

Jan Van Eyck, madrigals in the Ghent altarpiece. Close-up photo from wikimedia.

The Renaissance brought opportunities for new trade goods, new ideas, new things to look at. Domes! Linear perspective! Oil paintings you could only see through a magnifier! While other arts were exploding in complexity and innovation, music also took a few baby steps.

One Note at a Time in Church

Once upon a time, in the 13th century, there was secular music and liturgical music, and never the twain shall meet. A bard could wander around with a lute, singing in the dim banquet hall of the baron for his supper … see Xena, The Witcher, Galavant… No duets; no big sound.

Meanwhile, in the churches, there were plenty of choruses. But those monks–or nuns–only sang one note at a time. This was plainchant. As wikipedia explains:

Harmony was considered frivolous, impious, lascivious, and an obstruction to the audibility of the words. Instruments, as well tain modes, were actually forbidden in the church because of their association with secular music and pagan rites.

“Polyphony”
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Wasn’t It Only Yesterday?

The now nearly invisible Harry Potter. Photo from Warner Bros.

I recently came across a headline that gave me the frowns. It was a week or so ago, but in the midst of my “why don’t people get their history correct” rant, Part One. So consider this Part Two. The caption was:

Why so much Obama-era pop culture feels so cringe now: How Hamilton, Parks and Recreation, and Harry Potter lost cultural cachet.

Constance Grady, Vox.com

Much of this is a calculated irritant. The headline was recommended by a browser algorithm that is the technological equivalent of supermarket tabloid stands. It’s designed to be a wet fish slap. Obama somehow seems to share in the blame. At least in the supermarket, you can also contemplate the Snickers bars. On the Internet, it’s just you and this headline and the other stories cum ads about the “Last Bed/Pizza-Kit/Migraine Remedy You’ll Every Buy.”

It’s clickbait. It’s written by people whose profession is to tell you what to think and how to live. Those folks in the ancient days were the rule-making priests, then the culture-stamping bosses; now they are self-appointed influencers. (I was going to add barely-known bloggers, but then I’m a barely-known blogger, so never mind).

We all shouldn’t care so much. And yet…so many questions spring to mind.

Who decided Hamilton, Harry Potter, and Parks and Rec are completely out of favor? Who decided these were Popular in the first place? How is Harry Potter even “Obama-era,” when all of the book were published before Obama? I dispute the premise, and I dispute the facts. And it’s worth spending a few minutes on this because we should not stir together opinions about politics, art, and facts as if they are interchangeable. When we do that, it becomes much easier to dismiss videos from January 6th as “that’s your opinion.”

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Last Night I Dreamed of Algebra and the Taliban

Note: An oldie but even more relevant today. Sometimes history doesn’t repeat itself. Perhaps this time x= (order- fear) * the whole world is watching

From 2018…

The subconsciousness is a strange device. It’s our human CPU, running subroutines in the background. When we shut down for the night, it keeps running, energetically trying to solve all the world’s problems.  How the universe was formed. Whether there is life on other planets. What x equals. Why cruelty exists.

American Conservatory Theater production
From SF American Conservatory Theater production of Khalid Hosseini’s book, photo from Playbook.

A Thousand Suns… Some Not So Splendid

Last Thursday, I sat mesmerized during San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. This play, based on the best-selling novel by Khalid Hosseini, is the story of women enduring the Afghanistan Civil Wars and the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s. I choose the word enduring carefully because it is the core verb that women in the play use to express what must be done. Afghanistan under the severity of the Taliban interpretation of Sharia Law was as perilous a place for women as any; endure is what they must.

Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam….There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school . . . Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure . . . It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.
–Nana in A Thousand Splendid Suns

I don’t know if Hosseini read his Faulkner.

DILSEY.
They endured.
–Last line of The Sound and the Fury

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