Herder's Field of Flowers

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9.29.2014

“What I would call the third natural method is to leave every flower in place and to scrutinize it there just as it is, according to era and form, from the root to the crown. The most humble genius hates ranking and comparison, and would rather rank first in the village than second behind Caesar. Lichen, moss, fern and the richest spice plant: each flourishes in its own position in the divine order.” (emphasis mine)

—Johann Gottfried Herder (1797) 

Herder here is talking about poetry.

The above quote is taken from the essay Results of a Comparison of Different Peoples’ Poetry in Ancient and Modern Times (for the full text of this short work, click here). In his day poetry was judged against either ancient Greek/Roman or 18th-century French models. However Herder argues that, as cultural products, poetry is created by human beings existing in unique contexts, and therefore reflects those particularities: “Poetry is a Proteus among the peoples.” Therefore the art’s forms, genres, and types will differ from nation to nation, language to language, and history to history.

Monet, Field of Flowers
But how is one to make sense of this all this confusing, won't-stand-still, lost-in-translation difference?

Herder would argue (and modern cognitive scientists would agree with him) that our natural mode of evaluation tends to stack the deck in our favor, ensuring that our own interests come out on top. “Everybody assesses and ranks poets according to his favorite notions, according to the fashion in which he got to know them, according to the impression that one or another has made on him.” The trouble begins when mere personal preferences turn into totalizing value judgements that build institutional and cultural hierarchies that perpetuate “the classics” at the expense of “the little people”.

What can we do to avoid this poetic confirmation bias? Here are my thoughts on what Herder (with a little help from George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien) brings to the table.

1. Leave every flower in its place

Perhaps we should not be so fast to uproot our favorite flowers and build institutional, hierarchical canons around them. Perhaps we should not be so hasty to pull up what we consider weeds for the upkeep of those systems. Perhaps we should allow for some breathing room that focuses more on savoring and less on judgement. In The Princess and the Goblin George MacDonald explains that upon finding a primrose blossom Princess Irene “would clap her hands with gladness, and unlike some children I know, instead of pulling it, would touch it as tenderly as if it had been a new baby, and, having made its acquaintance, would leave it as happy as she found it... She would go down on her hands and knees beside one and say: ‘Good morning! Are you all smelling very sweet this morning? Good-bye!’ and then she would to to another... There were many flowers up and down, and she loved them all, but the primroses were her favourites.”

2. Scrutinize it just where it is

Analysis should always attempt to be emic, that is, from the point of view of the subject, rather than an etic approach that applies outside, objective standards. This requires much more effort on our parts; in some cases learning a new language, extensive background reading, or living in a foreign country are required before we can begin to understand our subject. (The metaphor of marriage or a different, close relationship would come in handy right here.) Some might say that Herder is here an “isolationist” who would have us view each flower in a vacuum. I would say that this emic effort, rather than tossing out interconnectivity, gives us the time and space to come as close as possible to understanding something before we draw any comparisons or conclusions. 

3. Each flourishes in its own position in the divine order

What would it be like if a divine order, a Creator, had made all the world including us humans? What if this Creator looked upon his creation with grace and patience, declaring that “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (according to Herder’s context of European Christianity)? How might that leveling, egalitarian idea change the way we wield our power of human order upon our own sub-creations (to use a term of Tolkien’s from On Fairy Stories)? Perhaps we would feel less pressure to so blind-sightedly uphold our personal canons. Perhaps we would feel less of a need to keep the unknown at arm’s length. By all means we should study, do research, be critical, make judgements, argue passionately for what we believe in. But the concept of a divine order simply reminds us of our own mortal limitations, of our need for humility in the midst of zealousness, and of our ability to both use and misuse our powers.

Rackham, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Lastly, Herder is not just talking about poetry.

He is talking about humanity. For him poetry’s use of language makes manifest the very souls of a people. In the end Herder’s ideas translate into a worldview of patience, grace, and empathy. 

Sources:
MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin, 2011.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy Stories" in The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. 

Recent Publication

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9.02.2014

Exciting times: I have been published in a national music magazine! When you pick up the September/October 2014 version of Clavier Companion: The Piano Magazine, feel free to check out the Repertoire section, pages 42 through 49. The article, fancifully entitled "Prelude sets for every occasion", gives contextual and analytical information on eight little-known prelude sets from Alkan, Heller, and Rheinberger to Zaderatsky, Auerbach, and Benshoof. The editors included typeset sheet music examples as well as publisher information for those piano teachers with an eye for repertoire adventure. (Headshot on the last page curtesy of Jess Roy Photography.)



I am very happy with this achievement! Thanks go to Dr. Derek Katz for suggesting the idea, Dr. Charles Asche for publication suggestions, and Ms. Kendall Feeney for brutally honest editing suggestions. 

At the Piano: Academic and Performer

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7.26.2014

Here's a little story to illustrate the richness that comes of melding scholarship with performance:

To crush my comprehensive examinations in the upcoming academic year I am spending some time this summer nose-to-book, building mental monoliths of specialized knowledge. (In case you don't know, comprehensive examinations, or "comps,"* are the last hurdle a budding musicologist must climb before they can start writing their dissertation. Imagine becoming an expert on five enormous topics, feverishly scribbling essay-length answers in an examination room for days on end, identifying scores and audio examples, withstanding oral questions from a panel of experts... Kinda fun!?) While focusing my research on one topic a month, June has been spent exploring something that particularly interests me, piano character pieces of the Romantic era. A collection of essays entitled Nineteenth-Century Piano Music edited by R. Larry Todd gives a great overview of key issues and concepts from a variety of intellectual viewpoints. This topic touches a variety of intellectual buttons for me (history, historiography, genre, technology, performativity), but it also speaks to me in practical terms because of my history and training as a pianist.

James Ensor's Russian Music (1881)
Image source

For the past two years I have played piano at a retirement community here in Santa Barbara called Samarkand, specifically in the skilled nursing facility section of the complex. Performing on the piano is nothing new to me and I am grateful for the opportunity to keep up my chops, but there are undeniably unique challenges in playing for a room of retirees, the majority of whom labor under some form of dementia. I've played in the midst of roving wheelchairs, inchoate audience outbursts, impromptu audience participation (good thing I can sight-read), and all manner of alarms sounding from doors, medical machinery, or loudspeakers. The number of listeners fluctuates within a half hour span as some are taken off for check-ups or to physical therapy sessions, while it is often quite difficult to ascertain who is awake or asleep or somewhere in between. Once I even gave a concert to an empty room, due to the fact that none of the residents could be in such close proximity to each other because of a flu quarantine, although I was told they would still love to hear the music wafting into their individual rooms. It is impossible in this setting to insist upon the pious, silent, respectful, and meditative reverence that we usually associate with classical music concerts. (Thanks a lot, A.B. Marx!) Rather than see this as a failure, I look at these performances as wonderful opportunities to make classical music a life-affirming rather than life-conforming activity.

I have found that the most simple and sincere way of doing this is to attempt to share your true self with your audience: talk to them, look at them, share what you enjoy about the next piece, show them how the sheet music you have is from your grandmother's library and was $2.00 back in the 1950s, invite them to participate by imagining a picture in their minds, ask them who has ever been to Poland before, play a hymn and welcome any sing-alongs. The other day I found myself diluting some of the thick, academic research I had just read in an essay by Jeffery Kallberg on the music of Frederic Chopin. Contemporaries of Chopin were struck by the "otherness" and "strangeness" of Chopin's music, especially the mazurkas, but were able to stomach it in large part by appealing to his "Polishness." The stop-and-go melodies, dynamic disjunctions, and haunting, hymn-like middle section of Mazurka in A-flat Major op. 7, no. 4 for instance find a sort of justification in this nineteenth-century interpretation of cultural difference. Right after Chopin I took out Kinderszenen op. 15 by Robert Schumann and suddenly recalled Anthony Newcomb's essay on the stylistic ambiguities and compositional contradictions of that composer. Contemporaries also Schumann's pre-1840s piano strange, but couldn't explain the effect through a paradigm of cultural difference seeing as the composer was German like them. Schumann's strange disjunctions and rhythmic complexities stemmed, rather, from the writings of Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann, German authors that by the 1830s and 1840s were largely considered old-fashioned, mannered, and bizarre. As a result, Schumann's early works remained little-known to the public, an economic fact that probably helped prompt a change in the composer's style once he became a financially responsible husband and father. (At the same time, today the pieces heard in concerts today are the early, bizarre ones, praised for their forward-thinking complexities. The pendulum keeps rocking.)

Chopin's mazurka played by Ferenczy

In my attempt to speak honestly and clearly to my audience I found myself making an interesting connection between two academic arguments while presenting it in an understandable and succinct manner to nonspecialists. I felt as though it breathed new life into my research by revealing its usefulness and accessibility through public speaking and performing. It also enriched my performance by giving me the opportunity to genuinely share of my intellectual and emotional gifts with a group of people in great need of human connection and empathy.

I find performing to residents of a skilled nursing facility very rewarding, but, again, not in the traditional sense. It is with a heart-wrenching combination of frailty and strength that an individual bent with Parkinsons straightens up at the end of a piece to clap twice before settling back into their wheelchair, or that someone slowly and repeatedly shares the highlights of their career as a touring concert pianist in the 1930s, or that a woman dressed in a snowy-white nightgown drifts ethereally into the room and kisses me on the cheek after a final cadence only to shuffle out of sight.

  • To the academic: Who is your research for? How do you communicate it? Do you seek to build bridges or build barriers?
  • To the performer: Who is your audience? What do you expect from them? What of yourself do you share? Again, bridges or barriers?
  • To both: Why do you not work in harmony together more often?

Kate Gasser's Young Girl at Piano
Image source

* In her book Get It Done, Sam Bennett suggests overcoming the impersonal abstraction of large projects by renaming them. Therefore, in my own head, rather than call them "comps" I have dubbed them "Crossing Helcaraxë," a reference only a serious J.R.R. Tolkien fan would understand. :)

Books used:
Bennett Sam. Get It Done: From Procrasticnation to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day. Novato: New World Library, 2014.
Todd, R. Larry., ed. Nineteenth-Century Piano Music. New York: Routledge, 2004.

The Music of Language: Gaelic Summer

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7.01.2014

Summer is for many things—for getting much needed rest, for enjoying the sun, for catching up on all the reading that has been put off, and for rediscovering one's hobbies. One of the passions that I will be pouring myself into during the coming months is language learning, specifically investing some time into my old friend Scottish Gaelic or Gàidhlig.

I've been attracted to Gàidhlig for a long time. I'm sure it has a lot to do with learning to play the tin whistle in elementary school and watching Braveheart in junior high. There was just something about the look of the words, the melodious guttural sounds, the familiar and unfamiliar patterns and structures. I can remember eagerly scouring the internet in my father's home office for lists of phrases and vocabulary, dutifully drilling myself on grammatical constructions with James MacLaren's Beginner's Gaelic (1923) during lunch breaks as a sales associate at Border's Books, and struggling through Prof. Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh's complex phonological analyses at Fuaimean na Gàidhlig.

Credit: Joe Fox, A82 Bi-lingual Scottish Gaelic English Road Sign Scotland Uk
Link.

As enjoyable and useful as these endeavors were, the approaches all suffered from the same drawback: they all took reading and writing as their starting point. For Gàidhlig this poses a particular challenge due to the complex and seemingly enigmatic relationship between the way the language is written and the way it is spoken. As I learned, I would continually find myself put in the frustrating position of either learning to speak phrases or words incorrectly, or of tiptoeing through a dense thicket of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) rules. It would begin to feel less and less like learning a vibrant language, and more like doing calculus or pitch-class-set analysis. There had to be another way!

I think I've found another way.

I've written previous posts about a language learning technique called "shadowing". It involves immersing yourself in a language's sounds in real time, internalizing its vocal patterns, rhythmic cadences, and phrase structures. Shadowing is essentially about the music of language; at its base level it allows you to engage with the raw sounds of a language freed from the distractions of writing, semantics and grammar. This is not to say that those aspects of the language are unimportant, but rather that the initial focus upon the musical characteristics of music engages your brain in a unique and powerful manner. It's a way of establishing a strong foundation upon which the rest of the language can confidently stand.

Here is my summer plan:

  • I am shadowing with Litir Beag, a podcast by Roddy MacIean on BBC Alba, the Gàidhlig language branch of the BBC. These "little letters" are for intermediate learners and Roddy specifically speaks the words slowly and clearly—ideal for shadowing! I do not read the Litir Beag transcripts, nor do I read the English translations—not yet. This stage is all about engaging with the sounds. Already I have noticed two interesting developments:
    • I can match sounds with much more accuracy and fluency in Gàidhlig than in a language which I know much better. Shadowing in German, for instance, is more overwhelming because my mind not only listens to sounds while speaking them back, but additionally keeps busy parsing grammatical functions, imagining written text, and visualizing descriptive or narrative meaning.
    • I can begin to intuit meaning through musical and contextual patterns in the recordings. Strings of numbers or dates have their own particular sound and cadence. Also phrases such as "he said" or "she said" stand out loud and clear because of the way Roddy performs the narrative dialogues.
  • I have just begun to shadow to another program on BBC Alba, Beag air Bheag, an educational website. Geared towards absolute beginners, this program takes you "bit by bit" through graded lessons, each unit ending with a conversational dialogue that sums up all the main points of the chapter. Again, I am avoiding reading the transcripts and the translations for the time being. The back-and-forth format of these simple dialogues allow me to intuit conversational characteristics such as questions, answers, frustration, incredulity, and affirmation.
  • The next stage in my plan involves carefully introducing the transcripts and translations to my sound world. The music of the language and the sounds that I've already internalized should continually act as the foundation. As I slowly look through Litir Beag and Beag air Bheag texts, I hope to continually say, "Oh! That's how you spell it and that's what it means!" and not "Oh! That's how you pronounce it!" There should be little to no renegotiation of the spoken sounds, though some tricky ones (such as the hurriedly spoken definite articles "an" and "am") which were unclear in the recordings can now be solidified. The point is that the writing should further illuminate and give definition to the sounds that I already know, not visa versa. 
  • This method should result in the following improvements and opportunities by the end of the summer:
    • I will have spoken a lot of Gàidhlig sounds, continually intuiting its musical patterns, cadences, and rhythms.
    • I will have a better chance of understanding the writing system and its correspondence to the sounds. Now the two can work in tandem rather than in tension and I can begin to read books with confidence.
    • I will have enjoyed myself, succeeding at doing something difficult that I love!
  • Perhaps by next summer I could be in the position to actually speak Gàidhlig with living people. It would be somewhat challenging given and sparsity of Highland villages in Southern California. :) But who knows? Skype has opened up the doors to exciting new communication opportunities, and institutions like Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Colaisde na Gàidhlig provide plenty of pedagogical resources both through distance learning and on-site visits.
Credit: Steve Greaves, Scottish Highlands
Link.

I am very excited about this plan and think that it will prove very helpful. By engaging directly with the sounds, I will have more confidence as I move into the more theoretical and structural aspects of the language. Let me know if these ideas are inspirational, confusing, or if you have other techniques that work for you. Bottom line, I am enjoying myself and my summer. I hope you do too!


Sumer is icumen in!

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6.20.2014

Happy summer everyone!

A. Rackham perfectly capturing the feeling of making it through finals...

Graduate school gives summer an extra feeling of arrival and victory. As of today, all grades have been finalized, all papers have been turned in, all boxes have been checked. Now is when we finally have the opportunity to turn to those things which we haven't had the time, mental energy and spiritual fortitude to enjoy. Here's what I'm excited about this summer:

  • Reading more George MacDonald just for fun
  • Playing more piano and chamber music with some friends
  • Actually visiting the beach, and improving my freestyle stroke
  • Meeting up with friends more often
  • Make new friends to improve German and French skills
  • Take naps!

This summer feels even more different from previous ones because not only is my wife no longer working in a job that had her busy the whole summer, but we just moved to a new house! It is such a beautiful, small, functional building with a wonderful landlord who lives on the property. Everything feels so full of life!

What are you doing this summer?


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