The Last Days of the Polymath

An earlier post kicked off an interesting conversation on the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

Dev, Lichanos, Andreas Kluth, the Commentator, Paul Costopoulos, sledpress, Rosaria, zeusiswatching – all were so nice to participate.

Being ‘cultured’ – we discussed – does it make any sense today? Why does it call up “stuffy, out-of-date rich people in drawing rooms?” in the English-speaking countries (Lichanos,) while it is still (a bit) appreciated in Italy France or Germany?

Apart from any possible European snobbery, elitism – being a ‘man of culture’ is not bad in my view and it is not elitist in that it can now be extended to the great number, this great number now watching realities – while they could buy a library only kings could afford in the past: something like a failure to me, not many doubts about it.

Only less than a century ago the Marxists, in their utopian folly, desired the totally developed man for everybody, which Antonio Gramsci adapted with his mass Leonardo da Vinci concept, that I always found fascinating.

The problem now is that a modern (mass or non mass) Leonardo is less viable because we know a lot more in so many more fields.

So the big gurus or maîtres à penser, providing the big picture people are so hungry for, are disappearing. Void is advancing and people, more and more confused, fall into the hands of organizations like Scientology and similar.

However, is this trend really inevitable, one may wonder?

Here is a conversation over at Lichanos’ – Journey to Perplexity.

It is about the death of the polymath and it started around Lichanos’ excellent review of “2001 a Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick.

Lichanos. Dev, thanks for the kind words, and I am very happy that you find my reviews interesting! I am a civil engineer – no connection to the film industry at all, but I came to my profession by way of studying philosophy and art history, so I am not, so I am told, a “typical” engineer.

Such a background used to be unremarkable for engineers, say, 60 or 100 years ago, but today, at least in the USA, it is unusual.

Dev. I know what you mean. I think that’s unusual every where in the world nowadays. Even considering the fact that all science and engineering had it’s foundation in philosophy earlier. I mean many scientists in the earlier times were originally philosophers.
But, I’m sure you are a very good civil engineer too.
Should I tell you that I studied Electronics Engineering in my undergrad too. 🙂
But I never worked as an engineer..
Anyways, I look forward to go through many of your earlier posts -especially the film/literature related ones- in the coming days.

Man of Roma. Lichanos, you are definitely not a ‘typical’ engineer. Dev, I don’t know you enough to say something.

We are shifting from Kubrick, but you are both evoking the polymath, he who knows a lot about a lot. This essay The Last Days of the Polymath is a good read (though Western-centric) and describes how the polymath is disappearing.

We Europeans had always the impression that this prevalence of specialization is due to America and her big influence. Although it may be simply necessary, with a corpus of knowledge so greatly expanding.

It seems clear, Dev, that by today’s standards many scientists of the past were polymaths.

Polymath is an English term. In Italy we say ‘tuttologo’ etc. Polymathy is still a bit ingrained in the Latin countries curricula. The ‘Liceo classico’ in Italy still educates the young in this way, probably because the universal-man ideal, the ‘homo universalis’, was developed during the Italian Renaissance – one example, I like to think, where being provincial could be an advantage.

ψ

I was hit in fact some time ago by a review on a book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The review was written by Jared Diamond, an American I think. Cavalli-Sforza is an Italian who started at Stanford a revolution in human genetics from the 1960s onward and basically proved that ‘races’ do not exist.

“It would be a slight exaggeration – argues Jared Diamond – to say that L.L. Cavalli-Sforza studies everything about everybody, because actually he is ‘only’ interested in what genes, languages, archaeology, and culture can teach us about the history and migrations of everybody for the last several hundred thousand years.”

The Indians should be naturally born polymaths, due to their holistic approach, although today, with the speed of their economic development, they seem somewhat obliged to imitate the Westerners and be monomaths as well. But there are so many polymaths over there!

Man of Roma. My comment was not a paean to my country. It was a paean to the Greek Paideia and the Roman Humanitas, where the Renaissance man comes from.

Polymathy as a tendency is also dangerous, it encourages flitting around, dabbling, people who cannot stick at anything (I know it too well), Giacomo Casanova (mentioned in the essay) being a high-level example of it: he was good in mathematics, in philosophy and theology, but not too good.

A metaphor in the said essay that I liked: flirting, promiscuity – they are no good. It’s the real polygamy, the numerous & deeply lived marriages that make a real polymath.

I digressed. I’ll then add Kubrick was a genius and had a tendency towards polymathy, as the amazing variety of his films attests – Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc. – as well as his passion for music, photography, he also being a great producer & marketing man (I heard at the radio he used to commercialize all the gadgets of his movies by himself, the heart-shaped glasses Sue Lyon wore, for example.)

Lichanos. Dev, MoR: No need to apologize for digressing here! If not here, where can we let our minds and conversation wander?

I love that word tuttologo!! Better than polymath, which sounds so dry to my ear. As for being spread too thinly, comme une dilettante, in English there is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none…” Still, the culture of the amateur and the dilettante are attractive to me as long as there is not too much superficiality.

I recall reading a critique of Voltaire once, I forget by whom, that railed against him: “The man has opinions on everything!” The implication was that he was flippant and felt the need to pronounce on all topics, even if he was formulaic. The size of his collected works was presented as evidence. Perhaps something there, but he was quite deep enough of the time to redeem himself, perhaps.

Regarding the engineering profession, I must say, 1st: I never could understand electrical circuits beyond the most basic. I understand water systems, and everyone says that they are similar, but not for me! 2nd: My father, retired, is an electrical engineer. He once drove me past an old industrial building in downtown Brooklyn where he said he worked at one of his first jobs after WWII. They build a computer there and had to knock down an exterior wall to get it out!

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, by architect I. M. Pei. Click to enlarge and for credits

In the pre-WWII days, “patrician” familes were happy to send their sons to engineering school. Now they only become lawyers or MBAs. It was a status profession. Some say that the dominance of corporate industry after WWII succeeded in capturing the educational institutions and molding them to its own ends, i.e., the production of ready-made technicians in large supply to keep wages lower. There is something to it. Within my sort of engineering, there is still a sort of envy of doctors and lawyers who used to be seen as gods, and are still, on TV at least, seen as worthy of celebrity and dramatic presentation. They tend to earn a lot more too! On the other hand, architects, a definite prestige profession here, get paid much less than engineers and always cut each other’s throats competing for business. I think the solution to this economic, status “problem” is to make it harder to become an engineer, to require additional liberal arts training in addition to the technical curriculum. This would restrict supply, but this is not popular position. Thus, the griping about “low status” and complaints that “nobody really knows what engineers do,” go on.

I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from volume I of the Gulag Archipelago:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers,and I could remember the engineers of the
twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their
agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field
to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then,
too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly
and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble
in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

Dev. MoR and Lichanos, wow, what a discussion and exchange of thoughts going on!

MoR: Thanks for sharing your views on polymaths. I agree with you that for most people trying to be polymaths is not a good idea. I mean one life is hardly long enough to do one thing properly, so dabbling in various things is never easy. But then, the best of the people have been, in some ways, polymaths. You are very right that Kubrick was in a sense a polymath. Each of his films were so different from each other in terms of genre, treatment etc. What made him special was that he was a chameleon. Nobody could really guess what to expect from his films. He was an excellent photographer and editor too. Plus, as you mentioned, he took great interest in the marketing of his films, even designing the promos and posters.

Lichanos: Nice to read your views. My father is a civil engineer and was a good one. Well, understanding circuits was never easy for me either. I guess I concluded it years back when I finished my engineering that most people are not ready to become an engineer at the tender age of 18. I somehow finished my degree in time and tried to get away from the engineering side of things as soon I got an opportunity. Not because I looked down at engineering, rather I thought it deserved so much respect and discipline that I’m not ready for it. Sadly, most engineering schools across the world just make assembly line engineers who can get decent jobs and raise a family. But, not really nurturing questioning/scientific minds.

Similar to what you quoted in the end, even when my father graduated in the late 60’s in India, they used to be proud of their engineering degrees; even more than the doctors or even the bureaucrats of those times. This is not really true anymore.

Man of Roma. Dev and Lichanos: you both then confirm that engineers are declining socially. Damn. My youngest daughter is graduating in civil engineering! 😉

Lichanos. Dev: On Engineers – yes, I think you hit it right on the head. BTW, I didn’t go to school to get an engineering degree until I was 23 or so. I NEVER could have made it at 18, even if I’d wanted to!!
MoR: I’m sure your daughter will do just fine. Everyone wants things built right! If she works in the field, on-site, it’s very much in demand, but a very demanding job! I could not stand it, I’m sure. I look out my window at the World Trade Center site and think, “How the HELL do they get everything to come together on time?” I’d have a nervous breakdown.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Previous installment:

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

Natural Language Learning as Nonconscious Acquisition

Language Variety. Click for credits.

Second Language Learning

This is our third post on foreign language education (see 1 and 2) and we remind readers how we had stressed the importance of massive exposure to listening and to reading. It is the so-called input method: listening and reading extensively in the new language, input, will naturally lead to output, namely speaking and writing. The native language is often called the ‘first language’ (FL or L1), while the new language is called the ‘second language’ (SL or L2). L1 and L2 can be more than one.

If listening and reading are important, which of the two is preferable? Both I would say.

Listening is important for the correct pronunciation and for oral communication. Even if we don’t have the chance of talking often to foreigners, listening has become very accessible thanks to podcasts, satellite TV or DVDs where one can change languages & subtitles, etc. So why not plunging into it? Tunisians and Albanians have a decent knowledge of Italian thanks mainly to TV.

Reading for (Self) Improvement

Reading has though a few advantages in my opinion.

1) Easiness. Reading is easier at first. Understanding TV programs or films can be a beginner’s nightmare, much depending on how our mind works.

2) Availability. Despite the new technologies books or magazines availability and portability are hard to beat.

3) Path to complexity. In most cultures there usually is a difference in complexity between the spoken and the written language, up to the extreme of diglossia. The language that the Roman soldiers brought to the provinces of the Empire was different from that of Cicero or Seneca. Classical Arabic is more complex than the language spoken in the streets of Cairo. Tamil, spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc., comprises this written-spoken difference plus adds further intricacy according to situation, caste and religion.

4) Path to language as art. Reading allows us a contact with the literature of a civilization. It is a wider concept than just learning legalese or IT English for our profession. Here language acquisition identifies itself with overall cultural acquisition. Literature (a) in fact is so well crafted as to transmit aesthetic pleasure – which requires some gradual initiation to be appreciated, as with wine (or Indian spices.) Literature (b) also transmits the deep values of a culture (sometimes of any culture,) a long story that can’t be discussed here.

[Well, we belong to a generation that did believe in literature as magistra vitae. It seems we’re not alone in this. Just check ‘literature’ out in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines literature as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”]

Book. Click for credits.

What to Read

In case we are allergic to literature what should we read? Well, ‘any content that interests us most’ is an answer. ‘Everything’ is another good answer, from crap to technical stuff to newspapers. Newspapers present the greatest variety of linguistic registers (from colloquial to literary) & jargons (language of sports, politics, entertainment, celebrities, sciences etc.) Same thing with magazines. I remember an English teacher telling us she had started as a child by reading every issue of Woman from A to Z. After one year her knowledge had jumped from elementary to advanced.

Should we use graded texts or ‘jump into the deep’? No predefined rule. Lichanos said here he got exhausted reading Balzac in French. I also was put off at first by English literary works. While some prefer a no-parachute approach, I stumbled upon the Longman graded books whose gradualism worked fine for me. It allowed me the pleasure of reading valuable texts even at a beginner’s level. I thence made use of the Bible in the same way, in lack of other easy materials, for the study of Latin and Greek. The Bible translation by Jerome (347 – 420 AD), the Vulgate, has for example great educational potential in my view being a marvellous mixture of vulgar and classical Latin. Since the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish etc.) descend from vulgar Latin, the ‘vulgar’ proved an effective bridge to the ‘classical’ (here Latin Vulgate text.)

No Grammar then? Also grammar is useful, provided it is not the base of language study. Learning irregular verbs and plurals, analysing phrasal verbs etc., all is useful for mastering a language. Which grammar to use much depends on our taste and cognitive learning style. Often our old school-time grammar is better than any other grammar.

Old Books. Click for credits.

Writing. Style & Content

Ok. Let’s imagine we’ve progressed and our speaking and writing are now decent. This being a blog, we’ll focus on writing style.

If content is what you say, style is how you say it. There must be some balance between the two in order to avoid extremes such as dullness or affectation. Such balance can also vary according to the situation and the audience. To the ancient Romans concinnitas was the art of arranging the elements of a sentence with harmony and taste.

Developing a good style in a new language is such a daunting task! One trick is that of choosing an author whose style we consider suitable and read his/her works a lot. It can be a starting point for developing our own style. It’s the input method again, though at a higher level. Style and gusto are an art, and “every art is taught by example” – as Muzio Clementi, an Italian musician, put it.
Again I insist on valuable texts. Isn’t it like with dance? Would we learn from an inept or clumsy dancer?

But once more, as with grammar, style rules can help too: advices by writers – like Hemingway, who recommended to prune adverbs and adjectives -, the study of figures of speech or of creative writing patterns etc.

Ψ

As a conclusion, this post has focused on a natural approach to SL learning based on imitation, on a “subconscious” silent acquisition through input which favours language production and a feel for correctness (and for style), this being complementary to formal and “conscious” rule learning (check this web page .)

A few theories have been developed around this natural method. Stephen Krashen’s (Comprehensible) Input Hypothesis is probably among the best known. Krashen, from USC (University of Southern California,) is a language guru whose work has stirred many disputes. I find his work stimulating although he made like a religion out of it, evidence being he has become a full-time activist of his ideas.

Although I always was fond of the input method I am convinced that best results can be achieved by combining various methods of learning.

Ψ

Related posts:

Experiences of a non Mother Tongue Blogger
Some Language and Reference Tools Utilized for this Blog
Power of Reading
Guess What is Better than Prozac
Books. Our Own Film Inside Our Head
Books, Multimedia and E-learning
Locking Horns with a Young Roman
Merry Saturnalia! And a Roman New Blog

A Dear Old Friend Got Lost in the Intricacies of the Planet (or of his Mind)

E8 beautiful geometry. Click for source.

This, together with this music, is to commemorate Angelo, colleague and friend, systems & networking engineer, mathematician and physicist as well as passionate linguistic, a totally eccentric, harmless and absent-minded individual who since the end of the 80s onwards did violence to a nature inclined to quiet studies, as if to test himself – his father had been very successful internationally as a hydraulic engineer – and embarked on deeds greater than him.

A quiet and shy person, he was deprived of both that minimum knowledge of men and those qualities required for planning and successfully implementing solutions in troubled regions of the earth.

He worked here and there as if bitten by an incurable malaise, eager to explore languages within dangerous areas of Africa, the Middle East and South America. His inadequacy produced in him an anxiety which kept growing in the course of the years – some of his projects turned out to be unrealistic  – and which we clearly felt in his letters, which became more and more sporadic although no less significant.

Ψ

When one day mails from him arrived more bizarre than ever and written in a patchwork of languages, of which a few artificial and invented by him, we clearly understood that something was wrong.

No more than ten, these letters are all we know of the apparently most difficult period of his life. A sort of final communiqué? Gods only know. They have been exchanged as relics among relatives and friends, their delirious depths plumbed in search of secret signs or revealing thoughts. They are too private to be published, but if I did you’d probably understand how interesting, ingenious, defenceless, crazy, tormented, adorable he was, without any doubt one of the weirdest and best persons I’ve ever met.

Extropian, another sui generis (and fortunately sedentary) character, and the friend possibly closest to him, keeps on saying he started to get worse the day he discovered Garret Lisi’s theories on quantum mechanics and stubbornly tried to give a contribution to them, although, knowing Extropian too well, I doubt this to be much more than a jest to play things down a bit, or, as we say, per sdrammatizzare.

His last mail, written on October 21rst not many years ago, is absolutely incomprehensible.

Searches conducted by relatives, friends and the institution he was working for in the country where he was operational at that time produced no results. He seems to be vanished.

Ψ

If you are still alive, Angelo, why don’t you contact us, dear friend? In which meanders of this planet (or of your mind) did you lose your path?

On Black Sabbath and Indian Classical Music

Dio - Black Sabbath. Photo by NYCArthur

I habitually post once a week. Last week I spent all my available time in a short trip and in replying to comments here or in posting comments on other blogs. All I can do now is reporting some of these conversations by splitting them in a sequence of posts, this being the first one.

It’s not a vile expedient. A dialogue or conversation to me is important, my method post being evidence of it.

The people involved in the conversation(s) are Ashish, an Indian young man from Maharastra; Poonam Sharma, an Indian young woman from New Delhi; the Commentator, a Canadian of Italian origin from Quebec; Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, from Quebec as well.

Texts in square brackets are notes by MoR. For the original conversation see the previous post’s comment section.

Saving a Friend From Metal Rock?

Poonam Sharma. Yes, Ashish must indeed be saved from rock music… All songs [proposed in MoR’s previous post] are new for me, so my unaccustomed ear will have a try at them.

MoR. So far the effect on him of my music preaching has been negligible.

A person like Ashish cannot be caged by Black Sabbath forever! Maybe the works by Bach proposed though are too complicated. Bach is severe but being mystical he might appeal to Indian minds like yours and Ashish’s.

Ashish. Thank you! [referring to my last post meant to redeem him] I also just begun on Indian Classical music with Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia’s Call of the Valley. Can’t wait to start on this … yes, Ashish must indeed be saved from rock music. I think it’s too late for that! You don’t know the beauty of listening to Heaven and Hell, then Stargazer and jumping to Ahir Bhairav just yet!!

MoR. It’s not that I don’t like rock, I’m still listening to it now and then. It’s just that a mind needs all types of nourishment. I’m sure you’ll find depths in Indian classical music unknown to Sabbath. Ahir bhairav? I checked, it seems to be a Hindustani classical raga. I wish I had some knowledge of Indian ragas. Why then don’t you flood me with links? Why don’t you become just a bit (or a lot) a Man of India – instead of repeating of yourself: ‘The British left, but left him’ …? 🙂

The Power of Sabbath

(Sabbath. Heaven and Hell – Neon Knights. Live. From this post by Ashish)

Ashish. Alright, this needs some explaining.

You see, I am NOT a music person. All this passion for music started when we started the cyber cafe as background music when I worked. The problem was that the hindi (Indian) songs were too much intrusive and I couldn’t concentrate so I loaded up my playlist with English ones. Slowly I listened to the music, started liking it and when I bought a new MP3 player I started listening a week.

Currently, on my holiday’s I usually go out for long walks early in the morning for I dislike meeting people. So what to do during the day when for the most part of 12 hours there is no electricity? How to relieve myself from the world? Thats where rock saves me.  😉

It’s not like I “hate” Indian music. It just seems more vocal focused. Whoever has the best voice wins. Heck, I even dislike modern rock as you know and prefer the 70’s or 80’s act meself. It’s the music.. so much different, myriad filled with epics, dragons (Ronnie Dio happens to be my favourite vocalist) or drugs!

As for becoming Man of India well there are too many Men of India preaching this and that. I prefer not being tied to a region or place. The world is free I think to live wherever I want, like whatever I want, eat whatever I want. (This is a rant not for you but for everyone who advises in regionalism..)…

Paul. Ashish, try to get «Beatles go baroque», Naxos 8.990050F, original Beatles’s songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney arranged by Peter Breiner in the styles of Handel, Vivaldi or J.S. Bach. A real treat. It was recorded in 1992, in Bratislava by the Slovak Philarmonic. The beat and the music is there with a special flavor.

Ashish. Paul, thanks for that! Thats seems like some Beatles I can stomach! (I have their greatest hits package but don’t listen to it that much.) Will try to find this! Thanks very much! 🙂

The Commentator. (…) I’m starting to like Ashish. He pulls out the Sabbath. I like to listen to hard stuff every once in a while. Why, just today I was blasting The Ramones. But what a long walk from the beautiful masterpieces of Western classical music to rock.

Let’s see Western musical heritage: classical, ragtime, jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock, hard rock, motown, disco, punk, techno, grunge – interesting evolution. I know. An incomplete list and definitions. But you get the picture.

Ashish. LOL thank you Commentator. I’m just getting into the stuff actually. There is so much music and so little time!

Sarinda, Indian bow string instrument

MoR. Ashish, you say: “It’s not like I hate Indian music. It just seems more vocal focused.”

Voice, ok. But as far as I know there are lots of instruments as well, complex and exciting. Percussions are very rich, plus we have bow string instruments like Sarinda (see above) and Sarangi, stringed instruments like the Sitar (a great myth of my generation because of the Beatles and Ravi Shankar) and many others I don’t know the names of.

Probably Indian music is monodic, so melody plays a great role, and of course voice can be central, though not only I think. What I like very much is the way the Indians treat the melody (vocal or instrumental), fascinating for its sensual ornaments and especially quarter tones (!!), so exotic to Western ears!

Ashish. Nay, you’re talking Indian Classical music. I was talking about the regular – which is mostly film music and most all of which is vocal focused. But like I said above, the bug of classical music has bitten me now and I’m ready to dive in that ocean.

Bolly Songs and Classical Ragas

MoR. Great. I loved the music you presented in your post: the songs reminded me of my stay in India but the classical Ahir Bhairav type of music you present [which can be listened here] is much more profound, there is a total difference in depth. Depth is to be experienced especially at your age, since it’ll get deeper into your blood. [What I am not at all able to figure out is how, according to these Hindustani ragas, the music is slowly building up in more and more complex variations, I mean in which ways, according to which rules.]

Ashish. That is what I liked about it, depth. You could just lay back and watch as the music danced in front of your eye with varied textures.

Oriental Quarter tones

(We can finish with the Man of Roma talking about things he knows nothing about)

MoR. Oriental and Indian music has quarter tones, I can dare say. In the first notes of the song Hur Hura Asathe you have embedded in your post – I might be wrong – one experiences quarter tones.

On a keyboard, the distance in pitch between for example a C note and a D note (two white keys) is called a whole tone and this tone is cut into two halves (2 semitones) by classical Western music (C-C#; C#-D).

So between a C and a D we have only one possible note in between: C#.

In Oriental music instead a whole tone is cut into 4 different notes, 4 quarter tones.

It is one reason why the first notes of the said song (see the movie below) sound vague to a Western ear, which increases their fascination. I don’t think it is by chance by the way that the Italian word vago (= vague) means both vague and beautiful.

This whole inter-cultural thing is of course fascinating.

ψ

Related post (and conversation):

Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Manuscript of the Musical Offering. Wikimedia. Public Domain

Ashish, the Geek Wrestler, once asked me for a sort of introduction to Western music. The reason I’m writing this is to save him from metal rock. But the topic is immense and greater than my knowledge, so I guess I can write brief notes on specific aspects, like this one.

One of the characteristics of Western music is polyphony, e.g. music made of melodies that travel independently throughout the composition though harmoniously combined with one another. This whole thing, of combining different melodies together, began in the Middle Ages, possibly by chance, and progressed in the subsequent centuries.

Western music can also be monodic, the opposite of polyphonic, whenever there is either just one melody (monophony) or when a melody prevails over other sounds that serve as mere accompaniment to the main star, the melody itself.

In this nocturne for piano solo by Frédéric Chopin (op. 27 no. 2) we have a cantabile melody, sometimes doubled and with ornaments, accompanied by arpeggios and bass sounds. It is evident here that the melody is the main protagonist, despite the surrounding notes and some voice layering here and there.

Let us first listen to the real thing (we chose Maurizio Pollini for his unromantic interpretation of this romantic work) and we’ll then listen to and view a computer graphical representation of the same work, which favours analysis.

In the computerized version below (by Stephen Malinowski) we notice that the double notes of the melody are not always parallel, which creates like a secondary voice. At the end of the piece there is some slight hint of polyphony. But on the whole this is not a polyphonic piece. Chopin is mainly monodic. Only at the end of his life he inserted some polyphony in his most mature works.

Let us now plunge into the great polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No.4, iii, Presto.) This music – whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear – is such hard stuff I prefer to propose a computerized version first (also by Stephen Malinowski.)

Different colours and timbers help to mentally separate the different voices. The exercise of following the voices separately is highly educating and can result in great pleasure. No easy thing at first though. I should have chosen a music with less voices (2 or 3 maximum,) but I couldn’t find a Midi music as satisfying as this one, although being able to identify 3 voices (hard already) or  just 2 can be all right at first. The representation is what one usually gets on a Midi sequencer, i.e. a computer software, such as Steinberg Cubase.

Now a version with real players (the performers being unknown to me).

The music of Bach here presented is a fugue (or fugato). In a fugue voices (parts) are not all equal. There is a subject or theme (like a main melody) that is repeated many times at different levels of pitch. It is good exercise as well trying to identify, among the bunch of voices, the subject of a fugue whenever it pops up here and there, which is pretty often.

The study and practice of “the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm” is called counterpoint. It was highly developed during the Renaissance and was common practice later, during the Baroque period (Wikipedia).
Independent in contour and rhythm. Very important in polyphony. If played or sung separately, voices or melodies still make sense!

One last music by this great German composer: the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 – iii, Allegro, rich with tremendous energy and beauty.

Books. Our Own Film Inside Our Head

“Whenever anyone had mentioned the possibility of making a film adaptation [of my most famous book] my answer had always been ‘No, I’m not interested’. I believe that each reader creates his own film inside his head, gives faces to the characters, contructs every scene, hears the voices, smells the smells. And that is why whenever a reader goes to see a film based on a novel that he likes, he leaves feeling disappointed, saying: ‘The book is so much better than the film’.

(quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Zahir, HarperCollins Publisher 2005)

Ψ

Other related posts:
Guess what is better than Prozac
Books, Multimedia and E-learning

Fuelling the Future

Youth with its endless energy has always been fascinating. All revolutions are made by young people, which are like gasoline, ever exploding, ever changing the world. The British industrial revolution was prepared by an agricultural revolution that greatly increased and rejuvenated the population, so one can say that this fundamental breakthrough was largely a product of young energies (which did not mean a mere extension of the workforce).

We now see a whole new generation of Indians and Chinese (together with the Brazilians etc.) fighting for a better future and rightfully enthusiastic about the progress of their respective countries. We are watching with interest this world readjustment occurring before our eyes and fuelled by the younger generations. Hundreds of thousands of these youngsters being active bloggers, it is easy to have a direct connection with them via the blogosphere. Here a list of a few Indian bloggers we have been in contact with: Ashish, Falcon, Poonam, Nita, Amyth, Ishmeet, Shefaly, Reema, Nova etc.

(Above a picture of the Lotus Temple in Delhi, India, courtesy of mais_dois)

As far as the Chinese, we’ve been in contact with a young woman blogger only, AutumnSnow, the problem with China being the language, as far as we can tell (and/or our incapability of connecting to Chinese people so far).

Ψ

Indian Amyth has been the first to comment in our blog. Recently we found this post on his weblog site:

“I am a die-hard nationalist! I LOVE going to malls on weekends and experiencing first-hand India’s spending BOOM. I LOVE watching IPL and all the cricketing world’s eyes glued to the Indian story. I LOVE Bollywood churning out movie after movie and filled-up multiplexes. I LOVE listening to analysts on CNN Money talking about “The India Story!”

I know there are miles to go still.. and there are mountains to climb. But I know that as a nation of a billion-plus people we are striving for better lives and for a better India. We are working hard and we are getting closer.”

Touching words. Following is a video he presents in his post. Produced by India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), “in many ways … it captures the essence of India”, in Amyth’s opinion, talking of modern advances together with Karma and Dharma. Impressive, in our view.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find anything similar for China. Maybe the movie below can provide an idea of what is also happening in that country, although we being not allowed to embed it we can just follow this link here (courtesy of CutePiglet123).

Unbelievable views and pictures, in any case. Really.

A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Reagan assassination attempt. Public domain

Before getting to the killers let us be patient and consider the concept of literary improvisation. I know I am terribly boring but I promise a lot of blood blood blood in this post – plus the relationship between literature and social life being complex we’ll have to wander a bit before we finally dive into base butchery 😉 .

Literary improvisation is not far from musical improvisation, a topic we have talked about in a previous post. We will not define the concept, being it self-explanatory.

(Can James Joyce’s stream of consciousness be in some way related to what we have said above – literary improvisation, not base butchery, in case you don’t get it wrong 😉 ? Hard to say. I don’t believe it to be very far from it. It is to be noted though that writers at times cleverly build what seems spontaneous, and in literature what counts is the final result: things do work or they do not).

Connecting literary improvisation with digression we will mention again that nice passage by J. D. Salinger where Holden, the adolescent protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, narrates how he had to undergo the oral expression lesson which consisted in letting a student speak of any topic, and each time the student didn’t stick to the point all the boys in class had to yell “Digression!!” at him (you can read this passage in a former post of ours). Holden instead liked speeches full of digressions and the novel itself, if not very similar in its structure to the above said stream of consciousness, is nonetheless so rich with digressions, facts within facts, ideas within ideas, that it creates an overall effect of chaotic freshness memorably depicting an adolescent mind definitely undisciplined and even disturbed (Holden is disturbed in some way) although so vivacious and sparkling.

(Here again everything seems spontaneous and improvised but I am sure Salinger’s text resulted from a good mixture of intuition and clever construction).

Salinger’s novel has been a classic not only of the American literature (and his language is present in most dictionaries of US slang) but it has inspired the beat generation as well as numerous drop-outs who joined the utopian movements of the 1960s up to the present day.

Personally I read it by mere chance when I was 18 (I had it in inheritance from a boy who was leaving an apartment we shared in Ireland) and I was deeply impressed by it. Coming just out of adolescence I probably recognized in there plenty of the insecurities I was living in those days. But young Holden went beyond, to the extent of almost hating all the surrounding world and it was a bit worrying for people (like me), who enjoyed the book so much, to read on newspapers that David Chapman, the person “who assassinated John Lennon, was carrying the book when he was arrested immediately after the murder and referred to it in his statement to police shortly thereafter.” Also “John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was also reported to have been obsessed with the book.” (From Wikipedia: The Catcher in the Rye).

Lennon’s assassination announced. Fair use

Well, that doesn’t mean that the novel is murder inspiring though certainly by effectively describing the difficulties of a tormented adolescence it is not illogical that some disturbed individual identified himself with the Holden character, finding comfort and inspiration in it and thus feeding his vision against everything and everybody (and refusing to stick to the point naturally becomes a symbol of anarchic revolt against order and self-discipline).

However, also the non psychopath teenager identified himself/herself with Salinger’s character. So the novel became a classic for an entire generation, whether protesting against order and law or not, since adolescence is a more or less difficult period for everyone.

There is, we repeat, a subtle link between digression and the previously mentioned themes of utopia & musical improvisation. Digression as well, going against rationality, can in fact lead to inconclusiveness, i.e. to nowhere, thus unstructuring the logic of discourse – utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’.

Summarizing, improvisation is the thin link among the present post and these earlier ones, Digression vs Sticking to the Point and Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian.

Improvisation has been a myth of the counterculture of my generation and of the generations who followed. The idea of improvisation in art (music, literature, theatre etc.) is somewhat connected to social behaviours appeared in the counterculture of the last 50 years. A relationship, in fact, between mental and social anarchy cannot in my view be denied (like I guess it cannot be denied that there is some relationship between the crystalline clarity of Julius Caesar’s writings and his rational conduct and self-control, of which you can read something in this post of ours as well).

It is simple, after all. Facts (and history) are created by people. And people have a mind. Thence there are connections between what we think, read, write and do, whether in our social environment or in art.

Flowers for John Lennon at Strawberry Fields in New Yorks Central Park. Fair use

[We are not anarchic and we do not belong to the counter-culture – although for a couple of years we sorta did, but that was a long time ago. As evidence of my words, we try in this blog to find inspiration from our ancient philosophies, which exalted wisdom, rationality and self control. Only ….

Things are not in black and white,
the hues of grey (and colours)
being infinite …

Forgive my horrible English poems, it’s one of my manias].

Italian version

Other related posts:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Utopian Medieval Town

Why musical improvisation is utopian? Because it is a place of the spirit that does not lead to any place. Utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’. This is the reason why we say that musical improvisation is utopian. This idea in fact belonging to my generation – that improvisation was the big thing that could produce new insights & musical discoveries – led to nowhere.

In the 1970s musical improvisation as a theory and practice greatly influenced musicians. It was based on concepts like intuition, immediate action and reaction, and on the idea of mysterious mental faculties not far from Zen which were thought to favour the discovery of new patterns and unexpected solutions. Maybe it is not by chance that J. D. Salinger was attracted to Zen (see our post on digression in speech and writing; there is a subtle link between that post and the present one).

As far as we know (and our taste goes) improvisation has rarely created anything really interesting, with its tendency towards superficial results we can observe for example in some (or many) jazz pieces. Great composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt used to be oustanding improvisers as well but their piano impromptus were seldom published and in any case were regarded by their creators as works inferior in quality (listen below to the Fantasie-impromptu in C-sharp minor by Chopin played by Valentina Igoshina; it is a work Chopin was not very proud of … well, maybe it is not too profound, but Chopin is Chopin … 😉 ).

In 1975 the American pianist Keith Jarret carried out a tremendously successful jazz improvisation at the Cologne Opera House in Germany. It was the famous Köln Concert that created a new fashion of piano solo music based on improvisation and which in my view is a beautiful piece of music but here too we note flaws like excessive repetitions and passages confused and predictable (you can listen to the beginning of this work thanks to YouTube).

Note. This Köln Concert – not to mention the splendid Impromptu by Chopin – is great stuff, I do not want to diminish it, being an explosive mixture of jazz with a scent of classical, blues, gospel and rock, all so inspired and “flowing with human warmth” (quote from Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1995.) Just try to follow my point though and compare for example this Chopin’s Impromptu with other compositions by the same Polish-French musician.

An interesting aspect of improvisation is the high level of concentration required by the artist to produce anything decent, which some critics say it can favour a strong empathic relationship with the public. This is true but one can equally say that the same thing occurs during an inspired execution of composed music, namely music which did not spring out extemporaneously and was instead previously well constructed and thought over.

A great interpreter is in fact able to relive with renewed freshness a work composed even centuries earlier, which equally allows him to involve the public in ways empathic and with the added value of a work which is deeper and better constructed.

In short (and as far as we understand) the process of musical construction (composition) produces better results compared to this more or less spontaneous way of creating music called improvisation. What we are saying of course applies to other arts as well, such as theatre, dance, literature or rhetoric (i.e. public speaking, or writing, with the goal of persuading the audience): Romans like Marcus Tullius Cicero and Julius Caesar carefully prepared their speeches, even though, when necessary, they were able to improvise.

This doesn’t mean that improvisation isn’t a valid creative tool. We can play our instruments and express ourselves freely, or we can speak on the microphone of a computer in search of ideas for our writings. The resulting matter though should go through a post-production phase. It should, in other words, be purified and wisely inserted into the compositional process.

Italian version

ψ

See also:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Improvisations by MoR:

Two Piano Improvisations
A Dionysian improvisation



Digression vs Sticking to the Point

The Catcher in the Rye. Book cover. Fair use

Holden Caulfield, wandering without any destination, depressed, expelled from school (also for this reason he had secretly come to New York where he had gone through weird experiences), visits one of the few teachers who appreciated him, Mr. Antolini, an intelligent young man who had married a woman who was rich and much older than him (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 24). After the initial greetings, Antolini asks him:

“How’d you do in English? I’ll show you the door in short order if you flunked English, you little ace composition writer.”
“Oh, I passed English all right (…) I flunked Oral Expression, though (…).
“Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know (…) “It’s this course where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you’re supposed to yell ‘Digression!” at him as fast as you can. It just about drove me crazy. I got an F in it.”
“Why?”
“Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. (…) The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
(…) The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time – I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him. It was terrible, because in the first place, he was a very nervous guy (…) When his lips sort of quit shaking a little bit, though, I liked his speeches better than anybody else’s. (…) For instance, he made this speech about this farm his father bought in Vermont. They kept yelling ‘Digression!’ at him the whole time he was making it (…) What he did was, Richard Kinsella, he’d start telling you all about that stuff – then all of a sudden he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital because he didn’t want anybody to see him with a brace on. It didn’t have much to do with the farm – I admit it – but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle. I mean it’s dirty to keep yelling ‘Digression!’ at him when he’s all nice and excited …. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.” (…).
“Holden … One short, faintly stuffy, pedagogical question (…). Don’t you think if someone starts out to tell you about his father’s farm, he should stick to his guns, then get around to telling you about his uncle’s brace? Or, if his uncle’s brace is such a provocative subject, shouldn’t he have selected it in the first place as his subject – not the farm?”
(…).
“Yes – I don’t know. I guess he should. I mean I guess he should’ve picked his uncle as a subject, instead of the farm, if that interested him most. But what I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most. I mean you can’t help it sometimes. What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice. You just didn’t know this teacher, Mr. Vinson. (…) he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to.”

Holden will then run into a further letdown since, after getting to bed and going to sleep in a room of his teacher’s house, he finds out how Mr. Antolini has an interest in him which goes beyond a teacher-to-pupil relationship

Waking up suddenly in the night he sees Mr. Antolini sitting in the dark very close to him and caressing his head. This cannot but increase his alienation from the world, when even the few good masters he has met (or fathers, each new generation needing fathers in the broad sense) have interest in him for reasons different in any case from the ones he had imagined.

Italian version

Other related posts:

A Novel in the Hands of the Killers
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Relaxation & Creativity

Creativity and Thinking. Fair use

In Deception Point Dan Brown describes the editorial office of ABC News, “at a fever pitch 24 hours a day”. When a scoop arrives this paroxysm goes even beyond its limits: “wild-eyed editors screamed to one another over the tops of their compartments etc..” Then in another wing of that same place reside “the glass-walled private offices reserved for the decision makers who actually required some quiet to think”.

ABC Studios. Fair use

Actually for real thought one needs quiet, relaxation. This reminds me of a Roman top advertising agency where, at the end of the 80s, extremely well-paid copywriters and art directors were walking around in robes or catching the sun on a very elegant terrace overlooking Parioli-district-haute-bourgeoisie Rome. I was puzzled at the time but I later realized how ideas actually come out brighter this way since, as it has been observed, they are often suddenly presented to us when we are relaxed and not when we are actively striving for them (true for remembering things as well: the more we strive to remember, the less we succeed). See also Buddhist meditation (or meditation tout court) and its effectiveness upon creativity and mental health.

Budda in ceramica, Bután. Public Domain

See also the scientific discovery process. British scientists talked a lot about the three Bs — Bed, Bath and Bus, which appear to be those idle-mind situations where great discoveries are favoured. Obviously Anglo-Saxon buses are much more relaxing than their Roman compeers.

Italian version

Power of Reading

Roman Woman with a wax tablet for writing. Pompei. Public Domain

To a Chinese IT student. “I am glad to hear that you like reading. Of course I agree on the great fun and sometimes consolation power of reading. As you have noticed, my house is packed with books. I actually consider serious reading a pretty good substitute for religion and meditation. It is a spiritual activity that can add some depth to our everyday life. I get consolation from reading books that I find special, I get also meditation from books that make me think and/or move my emotions.

Consolation and meditation usually people find in religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam etc. Especially Far-Eastern religions teach us how to meditate, but I usually do this with books that are important or special to me. These books I sometimes read out very slowly, concentrating on every single word and sentence, or I meditate on what I read in the silence of my mind.

Book. Public Domain

Special books

The books that are special can differ according to who is reading them. I find special those books written by people whose minds are somewhat consonant with mine and more powerful than mine, thence capable of helping me in some way. Since I am not a VIP of thought and cannot directly converse with today’s top brains I build up my own Platonic symposium with good books.

Why, you ask, don’t you ever meet important and highly thinking people? Well, sometimes I do, but not so often, it’s not easy to meet them, plus I’m reserved, plus they’re so intelligent they might find me not interesting, or stupid; I know there are intelligent Tv debates and conferences, but I am talking about intimacy and continuous mind communication.

So I like many sorts of books and I read lots of them. Classics are though my favourites and I mentally hold intercourse with them. I adore classics. They are my lymph. They are my religion (literally lol). They resisted time. They are regarded as beneficial and/or fascinating even though decades or centuries (or thousands of years) have passed. Time is a merciless darwinian selector. I really doubt that Dan Brown’s books will be read in the centuries ahead.

By Tom Murphy VII. GNU Free Documentation License

Dan Brown & J.D. Salinger

Incidentally, if you like American culture (as much as I do, though it is getting too superficial) “The Catcher in the rye” by J.D. Salinger is a great little classic written by an intelligent, gifted person. I had the luck to read it in the original when I was 18. I was in Dublin at that time attending a summer English school, and this Swedish boy I was sharing the house with was about to leave. He left this book to me he had just read saying “It is full of sex and slang”, which of course made my resolution to read it rocklike. It might not be special to you. Some American people find it boring because they are obliged to study it at school. But you are Chinese.

Dan Brown‘s books are good thrillers in my view though a little bit too entertainment-oriented (in the negative sense: nothing wrong with entertainment), even if they talk about interesting things, history, religion, lots of technology and today’s stuff like NSA – a sort of IT CIA – NASA, the Vatican, which on the whole is fine, but the thing is he’s in my view making money by morally subjugating the reader with his pseudo-theories.

I am not religious but I find it ridiculous (and depressing) that some people have lost their religious faith because of his books. And it is revealing of the fact that void rules.

City Book Shelf. Creative Commons Attribution 1.0

You told me about the low percentage of Italians who speak English. It is sadly true. We are animals in this field (animals in the negative sense: nothing wrong with being an animal,) concentrated exclusively on our culture and petty politics, though something is changing.

Italian version

Experiencing All

Piazza Santa Maria, Trastevere main square. Low_ res. Fair use

Some artists have this tendency to experience all. They want to dare beyond normality, beyond the ordinary. The use of any kind of drug as mental trip (or, in a deeper sense, as consciousness expansion) has been a research path that many philosophers, artists, writers etc. have tried, from Baudelaire to Sartre to many others, from various past theories and experiences – lived for example by American 68 counter-cultural figures such as Timothy Leary, Carlos Castaneda, Ken Kesey – until today.

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man
Play a song for me …
Take me on a trip upon
Your magic swirlin’ ship,
My senses have been stripped…

Bob Dylan was probably here referring to his experiences with LSD.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. 1963. Public domain

Many years ago an American experimental theatre actress (of Italian origin) was living in a small apartment here in Trastevere (from Latin Trans Tiberim = beyond the Tiber river). This was at a time when this rione had just started to be trendy (enjoy some Trastevere pictures).

In any case one night, on a tiny terrace overlooking Rome’s romantic roofs, while together with some friends we were eating a delicious Tuscan caciotta and were placidly sipping some good red wine, she suddenly got inspired and said that, if Shakespeare was so good at describing all the hues of the human soul, positive as well as negative, it was because he had actually lived them all, it couldn’t but be like that – she said – since what he wrote was actually so incredibly vivid and real— from the most dreadful horrors up to the joys of sublime love between youths.

Therefore an artist, in order to access some bits of greatness, had to behave in much the same way and experience life at a highest and even extreme degree.

Logo of rione Trastevere

She undeniably tried to follow this principle, and while her life was gradually falling apart, her acting on stage was amazingly gaining in intensity and strength, as if actually there were this sort of relationship between the experiencing-all type of lifestyle, on one hand (extreme sorrow, pure joy and less pure transgression,) and a greater intensity and power in acting, on the other hand.

(If you want to know more about those days, read this post)

The intense beautiful eyes of this American woman, whose family originated in Campania, expressed all these things. They were the complex, ancient eyes of an Anna Magnani from Chicago.

Roman actress Anna Magnani. Fair use

Enjoy these Anna Magnani’s intense eyes, showing all the vigour and dignity a contemporary Roman woman can have. I will show you better pictures whenever I can. The American actress too had definitely a deepness of her own. She later moved on from that intemperate phase of her life and she now lives a happy and fruitful life back in her Chicago.

Ψ

Let us digress and enjoy Anna verrà, a beautiful song sung and composed in honour of Anna Magnani by the Italian pop-blues musician Pino Daniele, from Naples, a city we will talk about soon since it is the Greek cousin of Rome: Naples, or Napoli, comes from Greek Νέα Πόλις, i. e. new town.

Pino Daniele. Low res. Fair use

Anna verrà
col suo modo di guardarci
dentro …
noi che ci emozioniamo
ancora davanti al mare.

Anna verrà
e sarà un giorno
pieno di sole …
Anna verrà
col suo modo di rubarci
dentro …

Anna will come,
with her way
of looking deep
into our eyes

We still so excited
by the sea …

Anna will come
in a day
the sun will fully shine …

Anna will come
with her way of seizing deep
into our souls…


PS
Permanences. Rome has a special relationship with that
Campania area. There was located Cumae, which founded Naples and which was the first Greek colony in the Italian mainland. In those Hellenic areas, lush with climate and fertility, and where later great Roman men like Cicero had their villas, Rome encountered the Greeks for the very first time, a fact that will greatly influence succeeding history. Talking of permanences, this relationship between the two cities is still alive today, based on empathy, common roots and a comprehension of two identities which are diverse though eternally attracting each other.

This song by Pino Daniele (from the album Mascalzone latino, if I’m not wrong) we love to imagine as a direct tribute from Νέα Πόλις to Rome. And Rome – we also love to imagine – honoured returns.

lupaottimigut1.jpg

Italian version

Ψ

Related posts:

Oranges in California

As for Anna Magnani and our mix of ancient and modern:

Italian Songs. Anna Magnani, Dean Martin, Pavarotti and the Three Tenors
Pre-Christian Rome lives

On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World