Sunday, December 17, 2017

Stage Fright and Excitement

My musical guru, the late Arnie Lawrence, used to say that if you channel stage fright into excitement, it can enhance your playing. Easier said than done.
For some reason Arnie objected to the word, "performance," as if it implied something artificial, as opposed to playing from the heart. But I don't think "performance" is a bad word at all.
Last night at our home we hosted a performance by the young and gifted classical pianist and composer Nadav Greenhut. Nadav, whose name in Hebrew means "generous," agreed to play the first Schumann "Romance," originally written for piano and oboe, a piece that isn't hard technically, since it doesn't have a lot of fast passages, but which is very hard musically, partly because it is quite slow, and the soloist is very audible.
I didn't play it as well as Ory Schneor does in the performance linked above, but I did a credible job. I'm getting close to producing a sound that I like on the flute. Nadav and I worked very hard to prepare the piece. We met three times to rehearse it and spent more than an hour each time -- for a piece that lasts about three minutes! And that doesn't count the times that we each worked on our own to master our parts.
In general, and I've written about this before, the investment in time that goes into a musical performance is vastly greater than the duration of the the performance. Think about a symphony orchestra, for example, and the number of years each of the musicians has put in to get to the high level required for the position, and then the hours of rehearsal specifically devoted to the piece being performed. This also holds true of a jazz improvisation. It demands years of skill-development. This concentrated time is what you're hearing.
I'm not used to performing as a soloist. I mainly play in groups, and often, when I play baritone saxophone, in a supportive role. So it was doubly challenging for me: I was playing the flute, to which I'm relatively new, and I was playing as a soloist.
The audience of about twenty-five were sitting in our living room, mainly friends of ours and of Nadav's, so they were far from hostile, which made it easier for me to play. The main problem I had was in breathing correctly for the phrasing of the piece. Because I was nervous, I didn't take deep enough breaths, and I had to interrupt some of the phrases in the wrong places. Also, as I listen to Ory Schneor, I realize that I wasn't as flexible rhythmically as I should have been. The Romances aren't meant to be played in strict time. But I wasn't so disabled by nervousness that I couldn't play at all, and I avoided most of the errors I tended to commit when I was practicing, though, of course, I made a few new and unexpected errors while playing before the audience.
Even after playing for only three minutes, I was exhilarated at the end, both relieved to be finished, and also high from the experience. Playing in public demands concentration. It also has a kind of inside-out quality. I found myself both deeply invested in what I was doing and also observing myself from the outside, noticing both mistakes and also places where I was pleased with what I had done, as if someone else were playing.
Nadav played the entire program by heart, pieces of his own as well as pieces by Haydn and Chopin, except for the Schumann where he was accompanying me. I'm very weak at memorizing music. Nadav said to me on the subject, that, since music was written by a human being, another human being ought to be able to memorize it. That sounds right to me, but I think it's too late for my brain to acquire that skill.
Playing for other people makes your music real, and the tension it requires improves your playing. I would rather listen to a live performance by less than the greatest musicians in the world than a recorded performance. Hearing Nadav play in the intimacy of a small room was clearly a thrill to everyone in the audience, and we got great pleasure in hosting the event.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Banality of Getting Old

Today is the last day of my 73rd year.
Last night we went to see the recent Israeli movie, "Scaffolding," which I recommend. As senior citizens, we get a discount on movies, museum entrances, etc., but we have to show our official senior citizen cards. I gave ours to the girl at the cash register and said I wanted tickets for two "old people." She and the other girl at the neighboring cash register laughed. I meant to be funny, but what's funny is calling us "senior citizens," instead of what we really are.
So, I wonder: what am I looking forward to? The impeachment of Donald Trump and the indictment of Benjamin Netanyahu and his henchmen. How petty and vindictive am I getting to be?
It's healthier to look forward to personal things, hoping to get as much out of life as I can, and to remain engaged and productive, not to be a burden on anyone.
I admit to a failing of the aging: I scan the obituaries on the Times Internet edition and keep score: this one made it to 92, that one died at 46. I don't expect to rate an obituary in the Times when I croak, but I wonder what people will say: Well, at least Jeff made it to X. Or, too bad, Jeff only made it to X.
My father died before his 85th birthday (1906-1991), and my mother, who was a heavy smoker, only made it to 82 (1910-1992). My son Asher died at 28 (1978-2006). When he died, we knew he had been cheated of years of activity. When they died, it didn't seem untimely to me.
In a sense, the future is an illusion. It hasn't happened yet, and anything could happen. I was supposed to take part in a concert tomorrow night with a wind band that I play with, but the conductor, Eitan Avitzur, who's a bit older than I am, was hospitalized with a heart problem, so the concert has been cancelled. I have a lot of respect for Eitan, a fine musician, a professor emeritus of composition, a prolific composer and arranger, and a dedicated man. He's been conducting the orchestra as a volunteer for years, and the last thing he needs is the petty little troubles that keep cropping up and spoiling things.
I wonder whether he'll be able to continue.
As for me, I have some irons in the fire, things I want to accomplish and to continue doing. For example, I want to bring my overcoat to the cleaner's this morning.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Something a Bit Technical about the chord progression of "Misty"

I just noticed something about the chord progression in the first part of "Misty," the famous song by Errol Garner.
At first glance, there seems to be something arbitrary in the second two bars of the chord progression:
(1) EbM7| (2) Bbm7 Eb7| (3) AbM7| (4) Abm7 Db7| (5) EbM7 Cm7| (6) Fm7 Bb7| (7) Gm7 C7| (8) F-7 Bb7|
I've numbered the bars to make things clearer.
After declaring the key of the piece: Eb major, it abruptly modulates to Ab major, and then, just as abruptly, it returns to Eb major, where it remains to the end of the first part, except for the E natural in the C7 chord in bar 7, which puts the song in the key of  F for a moment.
Interestingly, if you sit at the piano and play these chords, moving your hand as little as possible, something fascinating emerges.
The top note of EbM7 is D natural.
The top note of Bbm7, spelled F-Ab-Bb-Db is Db, as is the top note of Eb7. This is a chromatic descent of a half tone.
The top note of AbM7, spelled Eb-G-Ab-C is C. Another chromatic descent of half a tone.
Abm7, spelled Eb-Gb-Ab-Cb gives another half step descent, repeated in the following Db7 (Db-F-Ab-Cb).
Then, in bar 5, EbM7, spelled D-Eb-G-Bb provides another half tone descent, and the top note of Cm7 is also a Bb.
In bar 6 there is a whole tone descent from Bb to Ab: C-Eb-F-Ab to B-D-F-Ab. (This whole tone exception to the half-tone descents reinforces the function of the seventh and eighth measures, which bring us back harmonically to the beginning of the piece - a turnaround).
The G minor 7 in bar 7 goes down another half step: Bb-D-F-G, repeated in the C7 (Bb-C-E-G).
Both the F-7 and the Bb7 in bar 8 can be spelled with the top note as F, and then we return to Eb with another whole tone descent, hastening us back to the beginning of the first part of the piece.
So the voice-leading of the chords goes down a a major sixth from D to F: D>Db>C>Cb>Bb>Ab>G>F
The second ending, bars 7 and 8 in the repeated first part of the piece, has the chords Eb6 Db9 | EbM7. These chords can be played: Bb-Eb-F-G, Cb-Ab-Db-Eb-F, compressing the whole tone descent from the two measures in the first ending to one, and the second measure of the second ending can finish on Eb: G-Bb-D-Eb.
If that isn't neat, what is? Errol Garner certainly knew what he was hearing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Doing Things for the Last Time

As my 73rd birthday inexorably approaches, I think of the last time I will be doing things. But you don't have to be old to do things for the last time.
My youngest daughter just gave birth to a baby girl, her third child. Quite likely this is the last time she'll go through pregnancy and birth. But still, as the date of your last breath approaches, you are aware that you might not be doing a lot of things again.
When we got our dog, Kipper, about 9 years ago, I found myself thinking that he was probably the last dog we'd ever get. When we bought a new car 2 years ago, I figured that would be the last car we'd buy. Just now I bought a new laptop to replace the ancient, clunky one I bought a long time ago. Will I ever buy another computer? Depends who gets obsolete first.
Some of the things one does for the last time are things one wouldn't want to do again anyway, mistakes one doesn't want to repeat, or things one has gotten tired of doing. A lot of my friends are retiring from their regular jobs now. If they keep on working, it won't be under  the same circumstances. It must be a relief not to have to go back to your workplace except to visit former colleagues.
You can also do something and not know that it's for the last time. When will I ever go ice-skating again, ride a bicycle, go back to Mumbai?
It's probably a good idea to think of things you enjoyed but haven't done in a long time, and then to go out and do them, if you still can. It's an equally good idea to think of things you've never done and do them for the first time. That's advice for retired people.
You're only born once, and you only die once, but in between you do a hell of things over and over again.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Some Thoughts About Genealogy

To state the absolutely obvious, every person living today is directly descended from the very first cells that lived billions of years ago. However, to make the time scale easier to grasp, let’s just state that every human alive today is necessarily directly descended from someone who was alive a thousand years ago, when, according to one estimate, the human population of the world was about 265 million.
Of those 265 million, we can assume not everyone managed to produce offspring, who, in turn, produced offspring, over forty-one generations (assuming four generations per century) between the years 1000 and the year 2000. Families were wiped about by wars, plagues, other natural disasters, and some people would have been celibate or infertile. However, a certain, evidently substantial fraction of those 265 million did manage to breed successfully, and today they have an estimated seven billion descendants.
From the perspective of a person concerned with genealogy, the important question is: which of the 265 million humans, who were alive a thousand years ago, are my ancestors? If you make a simple but fallacious calculation, you might be led to the conclusion that you are descended from them all. A person born in the the year 2000 has two parents who were born in 1975, four grandparents who were born in 1950, eight great-grandparents born in 1925, and sixteen great-great-grandparents who were born in 1900. Taking it back to the year 1000 would mean 241 ancestors, which is 219,902,325,552,
or more than thirty times the present human population of the world. We could not possibly be not descended from two-hundred, twenty billion different people. Hence, many of our ancestors must, in fact, sit in more than once place on our family trees.
For example, suppose two of your great-grandparents, not necessarily a man and wife, were first cousins (let’s say your mother’s grandmother and your father’s grandmother). That would mean that two of your great-great-grandparents were siblings, and those siblings would, by definition, have the same parents. So instead of thirty-two different descendants in that generation, you would only have thirty. That’s the process that whittles down the number of our actual ancestors from the impossible billions that the arithmetic offers. In the villages where most of our ancestors probably lived, in times when people tended to live and breed close to the places where they were born, the pool of available spouses could not have been very large, so many of our ancestors were related to each other. Instead of fanning out more or less infinitely, our lines of direct descent overlap and tangle. Not only are we directly descended from someone who lived a thousand years ago, we are descended from that person (and from many of our other actual ancestors in that generation) along multiple paths.
Some people I know are very proud that they can trace their ancestry back several centuries, but, obviously, that usually means they can name one person out of the many from whom they are descended in each previous generation. I would be interested in my own genealogy only if I could discover more than a name and place of residence. If I knew what one of my ancestors did with her life in the twelfth century, that might be interesting.

In Praise of Mediocrity

If I weren't mediocre, you couldn't excel. Mediocrity is comfortable. If I don't make demands on myself or on you, we can all relax and enjoy ourselves. Don't expect too much, and you won't be disappointed. People who are content with mediocrity probably sleep well, have low blood pressure, and don't get tension headaches. They don't get angry at other people for being ordinary, a bit sloppy, a bit lazy. They live in a mediocre world and expect the world to be that way.
Mediocre doesn't mean “bad,” it means “good enough,” “decent,” “satisfactory,” “serviceable” – not the best but not the worst.
Of course mediocrity is relative. One of my college roommates was taken into a freshman physics class restricted to students who, like him, had received 800 on their college board tests in physics. In that context, he proved to be a mediocre student. Those who excel in one environment rise to a higher level, where they prove to be mediocre. As far as I know, my former roommate went on to have a happy and prosperous life.
Mediocre people run the risk of being overtaken by the excellent and left behind, but even mediocre sports teams sometimes beat the league leaders. Besides, at a certain level, mediocre people are kicked upstairs, where they can do no harm but still can draw a nice salary and feel happy with their lot. Mediocre workers are passed over for promotion, which means they have less responsibility, less pressure. Maybe they are wise enough to know they don't handle pressure well.
Self-satisfaction can be a symptom of mediocrity, bourgeois fatuousness, not realizing that one is mediocre. It takes the critical gaze of the outsider, who is superior, to discern mediocrity, to see that the person who fancies himself superior is far from that. But a mediocre person with self-knowledge, who doesn't imagine she is better than she is, can be satisfied with her lot without being proud of it.
Mediocrity might well be optimal in the utilitarian sense. What's preferable, a society of content mediocrities, without too many outstanding successes or miserable failures, or a society with a few anxious, insecure brilliant people at the top and a huge mass of unhappy nobodies?
Does the idea of mediocrity necessarily entail competition? Not in zero-sum games with only winners or losers. It definitely entails comparison: to others or to an ideal of excellence.
If you grade people's performance on a curve, the middle is, by definition, mediocre. What ever happened to the Gentleman's C? The idea was: it's bad form too try too hard. Why? Because you were born to privilege, and if you strove, it was a sign that you doubted your privilege. The idea was: ideas and knowledge aren't all that important. On the other hand, it didn't do to fail. You had to learn something. And perhaps accepting the Gentleman's C was a way of rejecting the standard of those who presume to judge, who presume to know what should be known, who presume to set standards. Plenty of very intelligent and creative people never cared what kind of grades they got in school or college, because they were deeply interested in other things. The stigma of mediocrity implies some absolute scale, against which everyone is measured, but if society no longer agrees on standards, or if there are many independent sets of standards, the man or woman who are judged mediocre in one area of their life might be highly valued by people in another area of their life.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

History Versus Mythology

Because of my personal history and psychological makeup, I have thought a great deal about the difference between being a religious person and a secular person. In some ways I am both, unable to come down squarely on either side.
I grew up in an unequivocally secular Jewish family. My parents never mentioned God. My father was an absolute rationalist, but my mother, though not religious, had a strong sense of identification with the Jewish people, and she sent me to Hebrew school when I was about eleven, in preparation for my Bar-Mitzvah, which was, for her and myself, confirmation of my Jewish identity. My father went along with it. The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the Reconstructionist synagogue where I had my Jewish education was essentially atheist. We were not taught to believe in a “personal” God, since Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, called God “the power that makes for salvation.” This is not a concept that can inspire a young person or infuse him with religious faith. The concept of salvation was meaningless to me.
Nevertheless, I took on my mother's identification with the Jewish people. Since I was born in the end of 1944, when the Second World War and the Holocaust were still going on, in my youth I was strongly affected by knowledge of the destruction of European Jewry, though, again, I don't remember my parents discussing the subject with me. Perhaps it was so evident to them that they didn't feel the need to bring it up. Our immediate family was spared the Holocaust, because my grandparents and almost everyone in their families emigrated from Lithuania to the United States before the end of the nineteenth century. But I couldn't help knowing that the Nazis had tried to destroy the entire Jewish people, and I regarded the strengthening of Judaism as a retroactive act of defiance against the them.
I have only two specific memories connected with my awareness of the Holocaust from the time I was high school age. The first concerns a book of photographs of the liberated death camps in Europe, showing piles of emaciated corpses. Someone in my Hebrew school class brought a copy, and it was passed from one of us to another – not by a teacher as part of a class, but among ourselves. The shock of seeing those murdered Jewish people was indelible. The other powerful memory was left by André Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just, which I read in French, since I was an outstanding student of French in high school. I identified with the hero of the book, which I only remember dimly, and it heightened my loyalty to the Jewish people.
Because of that loyalty, I attended synagogue intermittently during college and spent the summer of 1967 in Israel as a volunteer on a kibbutz during the Six Day War. Evidently, judging by my later life, although some of these currents in my soul were subterranean, barely discussed and hardly evident in my behavior, they were very powerful.
In finding a marriage partner, it was very important for me that she be Jewish, in part to please my mother, who would have been sorry to see me marry a gentile. Why? All I remember her saying was that it would make married life easier – not that the survival of the Jewish people depended on avoiding intermarriage. There were intermarriages in our family, and we were friendly enough with the non-Jewish spouses of our relatives. But what was tolerated for cousins would not have been tolerable for me.
To skip the tedious details, in 1973 I ended up in Israel, married to Jewish woman, with a baby daughter, and my family and I gradually joined the (orthodox) religious community in Jerusalem. For many years I was a rather observant orthodox Jew, wearing a kipa, praying daily, eating only kosher food, observing the Sabbath and holidays, and sending my children to religious schools. My reasons for adopting this style of life never had to do with belief that the Torah was divine or that the commandments reflected the will of God. Being an immigrant, I needed an entrée into Israeli society, and I saw orthodox practice as the ticket of admission. I was also intellectually curious about Jewish texts and customs, we had many orthodox friends, and Jewish observance gave our family life structure and stability. By becoming observant, we became affiliated with a wonderful community, some of our closest friends in the past three or four decades.
Gradually, however, I began to think that without religious belief, religious practice was empty – though I'm still not sure about this. I am sure, however, that it became impossible for me to identify with values characteristic of most if not all members of the orthodox Jewish community: political conservatism, chauvinism, xenophobia, focus on driving the Arabs out of Palestine, discrimination against women, and homophobia. If behaving as if I were an orthodox Jew is a sign of identification with that community, forget it. Another feature of Jewish orthodoxy is acceptance of rabbinical authority, something I never did. The only kind of question I would ever ask a rabbi would be a very specific technical question about a detail of religious observance, and I can't even think of an example now. I certainly would never have asked a rabbi whether it was okay to eat fish in a restaurant that wasn't kosher. I knew it wasn't okay, but I did it anyway, even when I was taking kashrut pretty seriously.
Identity is a central element in religiosity. It is not a tautology to state that a religious person conceives of herself as a religious person. Participating in religious ceremonies, sharing religious beliefs, wearing certain kinds of clothes, eating or refraining from eating certain kinds of foods, using a certain kind of language – all of these are part of who the religious person is. This is true of Muslims, Jews, and Roman Catholics, whose religions require a regimen of specific behavior, as well as of Quakers, let's say, of whom one of their web sites proclaims: “Friends reject traditional, outward ceremonies and sacraments, sometimes characterized as 'empty forms.'”
In addition to identity, as demonstrated both to others and to oneself by adherence to certain behavioral norms, and the sense that observance of these norms is an expression of who one essentially is, religiosity denies historicity, and this is where we part company, for I am a child of the Enlightenment.
I earned a PhD in Comparative Literature, and my period of concentration was the late Renaissance, the sixteenth century. I chose to study that period, because I regarded it as the key to the uniqueness of Western European civilization, and I still think the Renaissance marked the beginning of the deep cultural change that gradually led, during the following two hundred years, to modern Western culture. There are three interconnected reasons for this. During the Renaissance the intellectual style of humanism emerged; critical rationalism began to take hold; and people became aware of historical change and the need to explain it. The last of these three developments most interests me at the moment.
To generalize much too broadly, early in the Renaissance thinkers noticed the discontinuities between ancient Roman civilization, medieval Christian culture, and their own times. Seeing themselves as a new kind of people, they rejected medieval philosophy and theology, and they sought to understand history not as the working out of a divine plan, but as the consequence of historical forces, forces that could and should be analyzed and understood in human and natural terms.
Gradually the idea that all the phenomena in the universe are historical took hold in every area of intellectual life in the West. We now believe that the universe itself has a history, that events are not caused by acts of God, but by previous events, and, in turn, they give rise to subsequent events. The explanation of why things happened in a certain way is to be sought empirically, not metaphysically. For secular people today this assumption is self-evident, even axiomatic. However, the consequences of this idea were revolutionary, because it implies that the Bible, too, has a history, as do all religions. If this is so, then the story the Bible tells about itself, and the explanation that events occur because God intervenes in history, cannot be true. Or, at the very least, they must be subjected to the same kind of critical evaluation we apply to any other historical account. The secular historian does not resort to the will of God to explain events, except, perhaps, as some vague and abstract “first cause,” since, given our assumptions about the universe, we believe that something must have given rise to the Big Bang.
I subscribe wholeheartedly to this view of history. Any claim, for example, that AIDS is God's way of punishing homosexuals and drug users, or that natural disasters are meant to teach us something about God's will, or that diseases such as Parkinson's or pancreatic cancer are connected to our accounting with God disgusts me. I don't believe Jewish claims that God chose the Jews and gave them the Torah and gave the Promised Land, or that Jesus is the son of God and died to save our souls, and I can't understand how anyone who subscribes to the secular understanding of history can take such claims seriously except as important historical objects, highly influential myths, stories humans have made up about the ways of the world. Like any other historical object or event, these myths demand a historical explanation, because so many people believed them in the past and still believe them today.
But why do people believe them, despite centuries of critical historical study, the development of science, and tons of evidence? Because the secular view makes history meaningless to anyone but ourselves. Historical events only matter to us humans, the people who live through them, remember them, and try to understand them. “History” is not an entity or force that is going anywhere in particular. History, with a capital 'H,' is an artificial construct. Events just happen for reasons inherent in themselves.
Now, why do I, a person who firmly believes that the secular view of history is correct, attend synagogue services, recite prayers, listen to the reading of the Bible, and even study Jewish religious texts? The reasons are essentially emotional – a statement that I acknowledge to be an oxymoron.
Let me begin by stating that I enjoy attending services (though not all the time, and not when they drag on too long). I like the singing, I like reading the beautiful Hebrew of the texts, and I like the feeling of fellowship that participation in prayers offers me. When I am praying in the synagogue, I belong to a virtual community with two dimensions in time: the Jewish people for the past two thousand years or more, my ancestors, and a real community, my fellow worshipers, those immediately present and those performing the same ceremonies at the same time elsewhere.
Reciting the prayers with a congregation is a collective performance, like playing a part in a play, the part of a religious Jew. Religion in general can be viewed as a collective work of art, and you don't have to believe in the empirical truth of a work of art to enjoy it in the deepest sense. Indeed, the Jewish religious view of the world as having a meaningful history, which is headed in the direction of final redemption, has much in common with art. Works of art have authors and creators, just as the universe, in the religious view, has an Author and a Creator. The details in a work of narrative art are placed there intentionally, for the purpose of advancing the plot, shedding light on characters and their motivations, and also for compositional, structural reasons. A religious person believes that this is also true of everything placed in the world by its Creator.
My reason knows that this is not true, in the sense that there are better explanations for what is in the world, and also because so many catastrophic events in the world make it impossible for me to believe in that they have been planned and executed by a merciful god. However, I cannot help wishing it were true. If only the world were the way the prayers say it is!
Prayer rescues me from cynicism, reminding me that there are values worth hoping and striving for. I can't define holiness, but I do believe that if we consistently regarded life as holy, we could make the world better.

 Prayer also puts me in contact with the mythical dimension of human consciousness, and a major flaw in the attitude of categorical opponents of religion is their deafness to that dimension. If we secular humanists accept Terence's dictum, that nothing human is alien to us, we cannot ignore the powerful effect of the symbols of mythology in our own lives, as rational as we may wish to be, nor can we understand the behavior of those who don't subscribe to our understanding of the world, surely the vast majority of people on earth. No rational argument can persuade a billion Hindus that their gods don't exist, a billion Muslims that Muhammad couldn't possible have heard the words of Allah, or a billion Christians that Jesus wasn't really the messiah. If we think that aspects of these beliefs are damaging, we should try to avert that damage, but dismissing the entire business of religion as balderdash is fruitless. So, praying with other Jews keeps me open. Open to what? I found it impossible to finish that sentence and answer that question. I'm still thinking about it.