Month: November 2010

They’re growing mechanical trees

Over at Mind the Gap, Molly Sheridan has cranked the Book Club back to life, which means all this week you can find Alex Shapiro, Marc Weidenbaum, Marc Geelhoed, and yours truly (along with, perhaps, special guests) fulminating on Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. Is it cookies? I hope it’s cookies. Anyways, the forecast says there’s a 60% chance of me defaulting to a dystopian world-view, which is always fun. See you there!

Image via.

Past present

In seeming counterpoint to the curiously inconclusive G-20 summit in Seoul this week, there was a development in the curiously inconclusive posthumous political travails of the Korean violinist and composer Hong Yeong-hu, better known by his pen name, Hong Nan-p’a. Hong is popularly, if slightly inaccurately, considered the father of Western classical music in Korea; while others were working the vein before him, it was the success of Hong’s song “Garden Balsam” (Bongseonhwa), first written as a violin piece in 1919, that showed the viability of combining Korean-style melody with Western harmonies and instrumentation.

Hong’s career coincided with the Japanese military occupation of Korea, and, as a result, standard textbook encapsulations of his biography emphasize his patriotism, how his student years at the Tokyo Conservatory were cut short by his participation in the March 1st Movement for Korean independence, how “Garden Balsam” became an unofficial anthem of the Korean resistance, how, in 1937, he was arrested and jailed for six weeks, an ordeal usually cited as contributing to his death, in 1941, at the age of 44. So it was a little dissonant to read that, this week, Hong’s descendants dropped their lawsuit to keep him off of an official government list of pro-Japanese collaborators:

Accordingly, the composer, who has been exempt from the list under a temporary court order issued last November, will likely be put back on the “disgraced” register…. The court said more extensive inquiries should be carried out to confirm whether the composer actively cooperated with Japanese authorities during the colonial rule.

Hong’s alleged collaboration came in the last four years of his life, as the Japanese rather fiercely ramped up their imperial pressure across Korea; having suffered a recurrence of pleurisy during his prison stay, Hong apparently compromised with the colonial government, possibly in return for medical treatment. His accommodation included editing music publications and advising the government on cultural matters.

However, if you’re wondering about a ruling that puts a dead man on a “disgraced” list at the same time that it admits to needing more extensive inquiries, welcome to the somewhat strange world of the Korean Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations for Japanese Imperialism (PCIC). Given that Korea has spent two-thirds of the past century under either foreign occupation or military dictatorship, the country certainly has more than the usual number of skeletons in its closet, but the PCIC has always been as much about contemporary South Korean politics as a reckoning with the past. The first attempt to identify collaborators, just after World War II, was stymied by the Republic’s first president, Syngman Rhee. The effort was suddenly restarted under Roh Moo-hyun, who became president in 2003; while the move was, plausibly, long overdue, the Presidential Committee also allowed Roh to both stoke anti-Japanese sentiment (always a popular move in Korea) and, at the same time, tar those of his conservative opponents who came to power under a succession of Japanese-trained military leaders. As if to confirm the politicization of the investigation, the administration of Roh’s successor, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, has both tried to sideline the PCIC and has pretty well scrubbed any mention of its activities from Korean government websites. And there’s the danger of financial corruption as well—descendents of named collaborators can have land taken away if the government says that the land was originally illegally granted by the Japanese occupiers. The broad brush wielded by the PCIC and related bodies doesn’t seem to have brought Koreans any closer to coming to terms with their history.

Anyway, here’s Bongseonhwa (along with another Korean resistance song, Jun Su-rin’s “Imperial Ruins”), sung by the great Korean pop singer Cho Yong Pil, from his 2005 concert in Pyongyang:

Fun fact: Hong Nan-p’a lived in the United States from 1931 to 1933, studying at Chicago’s Sherwood Music School (now part of Columbia College). Had he stuck around until 1934, he could have been classmates with Phyllis Diller—demonstrating, once again, that the only force strong enough to reliably bring humanity together is coincidence.

Qui habitat in Jerusalem montes in circuitu eius

In the modern, compulsory-service era, there are plenty of examples of composers and musicians who also had military careers, but, in honor of Veterans’ Day, a composer-veteran from a time when the combination was fairly rare: Kryštof Harant. Born in 1564, Harant (full name: Kryštof Harant z Polžic a Bezdružic) was a minor Bohemian nobleman and actual Renaissance man whose military service came in the 1590s, soldiering for the Hapsburgs during their Long War against the Ottoman empire. The experience seems to have given Harant a taste for adventure, as he and his brother-in-law promptly embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a fairly dicey proposition for a pair of veterans of a religious war that was still going on. (The pair disguised themselves as monks from non-combatant lands.) Harant recorded the journey in a book, Cesta z Království Českého do Benátek, odtud do země Svaté (“Journey from Bohemia, by Way of Venice, to the Holy Land”), for which he himself provided some 50 woodcuts; the book also included a six-voice motet, Qui confidunt in Domino, which Harant composed in Jerusalem.

Harant became an advisor in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who had moved the seat of the empire to Prague; but, as the power of the tolerant, art-loving (and somewhat libertinistic) Rudolf declined, the court moved back to Vienna, and Harant retired to his castle to write music. Throughout the early 1600s, the rest of the Hapsburgs were driven by increasing Catholic, anti-Protestant zeal, a tendency that bode ill for the Reformation in Bohemia. By the time matters came to a head, Harant himself had converted—to a sect called neo-Utraquism, whose nominal sticking point with Rome was whether the laity could partake of communion wine or not, although the underlying power struggle was essentially that of Lutheranism.

When, following a series of political twists and turns, the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, was elected King of Bohemia, Harant became his Privy Councillor. An unfortunate promotion, as it turned out—Frederick’s ragtag forces were decisively defeated at the 1620 Battle of White Mountain by mercenaries sent by the new Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, a ruler who took his duty to defend the faith awfully seriously. Harant was one of 27 nobles subsequently beheaded in Prague’s Old Town Square on what Bohemian Protestants came to call the “Day of Blood,” June 21, 1621.

Harant was the most important Bohemian composer of his time, which means he was the most important Bohemian composer for a long time, as Bohemia essentially ceased to exist, completely subsumed into the Hapsburg empire. Harant’s music was old-fashioned for its day, contrapuntal and firmly within the old Franco-Flemish school; one of his few surviving works is a cantus firmus mass on a Marenzio madrigal that was already a century old when Harant used it. Only a few months before the Battle of White Mountain, one of Harant’s masses had been performed with great pomp and ceremony in Prague’s Catholic church of St. Jakub, not far from the square where Harant would be executed. Inter arma enim silent Musae.

Harant’s music has been recorded by the Prague Madrigalists, the Capella Rudolphina, and the Italian vocal ensemble Triaca Musicale; the latter has audio samples on their site.

Well, there’s your problem

Part of this week’s to-do list is some clearing of the briar-patch that is chapters 2 and 3 of the book, which gets into the heavyweights of German philosophy—Kant and Hegel. One of the habits I developed while poking around Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thought on this trek was that of looking at the course of 19th-century Western philosophy as successive claims on intellectual real estate, a kind of dance between incomplete zoning and squatting. The Romantics set up shop where Kant’s aesthetics ran out of steam, Marx colonized the materialistic no-man’s-land that Hegel tried to jump over with a leap of faith, &c. Nietzsche pretty much made an entire career out of going back and opening up all the boxes that previous philosophies had left discreetly closed. It explains his brio—the process is, in itself, kind of exhilarating.

Now, almost all of these revisionist vacuum-fillings had a musical parallel—the Romaniticization of Beethoven, the Schopenhauerization of Wagner, and so forth. In fact, I think there’s an interesting case to be made for music as the canary in the philosophical coal mine. Music—and the way we talk about music—has a kind of tendency, in this interpretation, to coalesce around the weak point(s) of whatever philosophical movement is currently taken for granted. At the very least, it’s a provocative source of leverage, kind of like Feuerbach’s old trick of reversing the subject and the object in Hegel—it doesn’t reveal the truth, but it gives you a hint where to look. Probably the last thinker to really effectively work the lever was Adorno, using the increasing commodification of music to unpack the ways in which the free market is a lot less free than we might like to think.

I got to thinking about this again because, just for fun, I was reading some of Adorno’s student, Jürgen Habermas. (It is recognized that I have a funny sense of fun.) The fun of Habermas, for me, is that he embodies certain traits of the Frankfurt School in a kind of amplified, straight-to-the gut pop-music-ish way. The first is analysis; where the first generation of the Frankfurt School took aim at contemporary society, Habermas takes apart the whole of philosophical history. The book I picked up this week, Knowledge and Human Interests, bounces through Idealism, Positivism, Pragmatism, even a bit of psychoanalysis with the confidence of a chef walking through a market—that won’t work, that’s tasty, but then we’ll need this, but make sure it’s not that, and, oh yes, that can be lovely if you know what to do with it.

And then Habermas takes all his ingredients and comes up with something way more optimistic than I, at least, would be able to justify. This too is an amplification: the Frankfurt School was always more optimistic than their dour reputation might have indicated—they were Marxists, after all, so there was at least a lingering whiff of Utopia. But Adorno’s optimism, for example, was tempered by his suspicion of human nature, especially collectively; he believed that a better society was possible once one clearly saw the current society’s structure and mechanisms, but that was balanced by his pessimistic assessment of the political and corporate forces standing in the way of that vision. Habermas, though, with his program of “communicative rationality,” puts an awful lot of faith in the desire of human beings to interact with the common goal of logical understanding. Instead of searching for truth through self-reflection of phenomenological perception, Habermas thinks that it is in the very nature of communicative action that truth can be found, that our ways of communicating with each other will reveal universals. The mechanisms of civil society—for that is where we interact and communicate—at some level reach a consensus. Here’s how he puts it in his book Communication and the Evolution of Society:

In action oriented to reaching understanding, validity claims are ‘always already’ implicitly raised. These universal claims (to the comprehensibility of the symbolic expression, the truth of the propositional content, the truthfulness of the intentional expression, and the rightness of the speech act with respect to existing norms and values) are set in the general structures of possible communication. In these validity claims communication theory can locate a gentle, but obstinate, a never silent although seldom redeemed claim to reason, a claim that must be recognised de facto whenever and wherever there is to be consensual action.

Habermas is judiciously qualified in his description, but the key here is that first assumption—that civil society consists of “action oriented to reaching understanding”. If you find that a little too optimistic, then you’ve recapitulated the main criticism of communicative rationality—that, if history is any guide, the mechanisms of civil society are pretty easily turned towards creating and reinforcing power irregardless of justice or rationality.

Here’s the really fun thing. Given the question of which era or aspect of music might be, as is its wont, hanging around the weak points of communicative rationality, a plausible answer is: all of it. Music is, essentially, communicative irrationality, an art form that goes through all the public motions of civil discourse without saying anything. Or, rather, saying whatever each individual listener needs it to say—which is the equilibrium civil society always reverts to in the absence of exceptional coercion, positive or negative. In philosophical terms, you can almost imagine music hovering behind any utopian speculation, aping its movements, making goofy faces.

The Boston Globe has, in the past year, taken to running e-mail addresses for its reviewers, which means that there’s rarely a notice of mine that passes without a dissenting note, and rarely a dissenting note that doesn’t rehearse some variation on the phrase “I wonder if you went to the same concert that I did.” A venerable sarcasm; but, then again, there are numerous levels—epistemological, phenomenological, communicative—on which we actually didn’t go to the same concert. It’s why, like so many previous philosophies, music structurally demurs on communicative rationality. Utopias only work in music because we can each pick the utopia that best matches our nature. When it comes to civil society, you’re lucky if you can just get everyone to tune up.

Frelon Brun

Today in limited-quantity musically-themed beer: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Bitches Brew, honoring the 40th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’s fusion-jazz classic.

It’s a beery interpretation of tej, Ethiopian mead; like that drink, it’s brewed with honey and gesho, an African shrub that lends a hop-like bitterness. The result? Wow, this is a toasty beer—a stout on steroids, all dark chocolate and roasted coffee overtones.

“Frelon Brun” was the opening track off of Davis’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, which came out the year before Bitches Brew. The album title was another drink reference, a nod to the Kilimanjaro African Coffee Company, in which Davis was an investor. (The company’s founder, Arthur “Buddy” Gist, later donated the trumpet Davis used to record Kind of Blue to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.)

(Previously in musical beer: Monk, Zappa.)