Monday, January 16, 2017

Ideal High School Curriculum

Every few years, it seems, I revisit this concept. Last time I did was the summer of 2015. So here, once again, is an updated - though potentially subject to change - view of how I think U.S. high schools should actually function. At least for which courses students would be required to take (with a few variants for the super-advanced or struggling) throughout four years.

*Sorry for the table formatting - can't seem to fix it!*

Required Courses
Freshman
World History: Middle Ages to 20th Century. Includes Geography.
Performance Art: Dance, Music, Theater.
Physical Education and Health – Anatomy and Physiology, Physical Diseases.
Planetary Science: Astronomy and the Big Bang to Geology, Climate Science.
Logic and Algebra: Variables and Expressions, Linear Equations.
World Literature: Middle Ages to 20th Century.
Foreign Language I / ESL I
Sophomore
World History: 20th Century. Includes Geography.
Visual Art: 2D, 3D.
Physical Education and Health – Gender and Sexuality, Sexual Education.
Biology: Cells and Genetics to Evolution, Environmental Science. Alternate: AP Biology, Env Sci
Logic and Geometry: Euclidean.
World Literature: 20th Century.
Foreign Language II / ESL II
Junior
American History: Native Americans to Present. Alternate: AP U.S. Hist.
Performance / Visual Art Elective. Alternate: AP Art History, Music Theory, Studio Arts (2D, 3D, Drawing)
Physical Education and Health – Psychological and Psychiatric Conditions.
Chemistry:  Atoms and Elements to Compounds and Molecules. Alternate: AP Chem
Probability and Statistics: Data collection, plotting, Significance, Misuse and Detection, Correlation and Causation.
American Literature: ½ Prior to 20th Century, ½ 20th Century.
Foreign Language III / ESL III. Alternate: AP Chn, Fr, Ger, It, Jap, Lat, Sp Lan, Sp Lit
Senior
American Government: Includes Hum Rights. Alternate: AP Gov: U.S.
Economics: Budgeting, Taxes, Stocks. Alternate: AP Micro, Macro
Psychology and Ethics: Developmental Psych, Epistemology, Ethics. Alternate: AP Psych, Euro Hist, World Hist, Comp Gov, Hum Geo
Physics: Newtonian, Relativity, Quantum. Alternate: AP Phys 1+2, Elect, Mec
Pre-Calculus: Logarithms, Radicals, Functions, Trigonometry/ Calculus: Limits, Differentials, Integrals
English Electives. Alternate: AP Eng Lang, Eng Lit
Computer Science: Programming, Web Design. Alternate: AP Comp Sci, Comp Sci Prin

After School (Any years) (three years required):

Required:

Cooking/Nutrition – One semester
Parenting – One semester
Home Economics: Basic plumbing, maintenance, gardening, recycling, carpentry– One year
College Prep, Job Skills and Rhetoric – One year

Optional:

Yearbook – One year
Driver’s Ed – One semester
Drama Production – One Semester (can supersede a semester of a year-long required.) Limit four.

Sport: Team – Seasonal (can supersede anything else, ‘cause why fight it? It's not going away.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - I'ma Let You Finish

But here are some of the best bands and artists of all time! You should induct them right away.

You're welcome!

2018:
Graham Parsons
Kraftwerk
Roxy Music
Dionne Warwick
Jethro Tull
Richard and Linda Thompson

2019:
Tim Buckley
Whitney Houston
Sonic Youth
The Cars
Bjork
Cybotron

2020:
Cyndi Lauper
The Eurhythmics
The Bangles
The Pixies
Lee “Scratch” Perry
Television

2021:
The Smiths
Sinead O’Connor
The Cure
Sugarhill Gang
Peter Tosh
Def Leppard

2022:
The Modern Lovers
Aphex Twin
The B-52s
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
Nick Drake
The Replacements

2023:
Jeff Buckley
Jay Z
Tracy Chapman
Fatboy Slim
PJ Harvey
Jane’s Addiction

2024:
The Zombies
Love
The White Stripes
Sasha
Ry Cooder
Hole

2025:
Tangerine Dream
Joy Division/New Order
Moby
A Tribe Called Quest
Alanis Morissette
Wu-Tang Clan

2026:
The Strokes
The Fugees
Big Star
Beck
The Stone Roses
Pavement

2027:
Fiona Apple
T. Rex
Quicksilver Messenger Service
The Decemberists
The Chemical Brothers
Depeche Mode

2028:
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band
The Meters
King Crimson
Snoop Dogg
Radiohead
Massive Attack

2029:
Arcade Fire
Eminem
Nine Inch Nails
Kanye West
Phish
The Smashing Pumpkins

2030:
Oasis
My Bloody Valentine
Nas
Outkast
Sublime
The Flaming Lips

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

MUSIC 'MURRICA

I have thought long and hard.

And by that, I mean, I spent an afternoon a week ago on this.

Many a time I have distilled / compared / listed / compiled American music. The problem, of course, is that I'm always learning more, and with new discoveries I come up with reshufflings of the deck.

So there's a mixed metaphor blown to hell.

A little while ago, for example, I came up with a 300-song playlist of American music. But that's rather daunting.

This, then, is a sort of shortened version of 100 Essential American Musicians, with an overly-simplified quick description, and a YouTube link for each (except, you know, Prince.) Yay!

(Note - no classical composers included, 'cause that gets too complicated too fast.)

These are not hierarchical, nor chronological, but instead alphabetical, to be sufficiently randomized for your enjoyment. Here goes!

Marian Anderson - With her operatic voice Anderson elevated the spiritual to new heights.
Louis Armstrong - The riff at the start? That's the birth of jazz where soloists improvise.
Clarence Ashley - One of the most influential folk musicians of the early recording era.
Gene Autry - The transition of country music out of Appalachia is largely due to Autry.
Burt Bacharach - He wrote hits that made others famous, developing a unique pop sound.
Joan Baez - Released her first folk album before Dylan, and stuck with the genre as well.
Count Basie - Brought Harlem swing to Kansas City, and outlasted everyone.
The Beach Boys - Transformed the nascent pop sound of the 60s with studio wizardry.
Lead Belly - Weirdly uncategorizable blues / country / folk pioneer from Texas.
Tony Bennett - His longevity makes him second only to Sintra in the class of crooners.
Irving Berlin - Astonishingly prolific, he brought American music to the world.
Chuck Berry - It's thanks to Berry that rock and roll deals with hot rods, teens, and guitars.
Eubie Blake - From popular rags to co-writing the first African American Broadway show.
James Brown - Brown defined R&B and in the process laid the groundwork for funk.
The Byrds - The American answer to the British Invasion.
Hoagy Carmichael - Besides his prolific output, 'Stardust' alone should cement his place.
The Carter Family - Brought spirituals and gospel to the early days of folk and bluegrass.
Johnny Cash - Another genre-defier, Cash is claimed by both rock and country fans.
Ray Charles - By mixing R&B with gospel Charles created soul music that moves.
Patsy Cline - Country songs made for the Vegas showroom, thereby transforming it.
Nat King Cole - During the 40s Cole turned jazz from big bands to small combos.
John Coltrane - After bop Coltrane perfected modal jazz' wondrous sheets of sounds.
Sam Cooke - Cooke was the greatest songwriter of soul and R&B.
Miles Davis - Late Miles fused two of America's defining musical styles: rock and jazz.
Fats Domino - Strings back him up - typical today - but then unprecedented.
Bob Dylan - America's Nobel Laureate songwriter.
DukeEllington - One of America's composer-geniuses, and the most-covered jazz artist.
Jose Feliciano - Helped bring Puerto Rico's mellow side mainstream. And 'Feliz Navidad'.
Ella Fitzgerald - Her golden voice brought the songs of the 30s to the Boomers.
Foggy Mountain Boys - Led by Flatt and Scruggs they brought bluegrass mainstream.
Aretha Franklin - Franklin's soul music made her both a civil rights and feminist icon.
Marvin Gaye - Making R&B politically conscious opened the doors for followers.
George Gershwin - Elevated jazz to the level of classical, and folk to the level of opera.
Dizzy Gillespie - After popularizing bebop he brought Afro-Caribbean rhythms to jazz.
Benny Goodman - An integrated band went to Carnegie Hall and got white folks to swing.
Grateful Dead - And, lo, the 15+ minute improvisational jam rock band was born.
Woody Guthrie - I mean, his populist songs are taught to schoolchildren across the nation.
WC Handy - The first significant jazz recording artist of the century, emulated by many.
Jimi Hendrix - One of the most gifted guitarists of any genre, and psychedelic rock's king.
Billie Holiday - Played a significant role in blending blues and jazz now taken for granted.
Holland Dozier Holland - Motown's unstoppable songwriting trio wrote nearly all the hits.
Burl Ives - Before he became 'Holly Jolly' he popularized many American folk standards.
Mahalia Jackson - Jackson ushered gospel music through the civil rights era.
Michael Jackson - King of pop music, and the world's best selling solo artist.
Robert Johnson - Delta blues legend who was widely copied and covered into the rock era.
Blind Willie Johnson - This recording may be the purest blues ever captured.
Janis Joplin - America's great songwriter of the hippy movement.
Scott Joplin - The great-grandfather of jazz with his piano roll rags.
Louis Jordan - His jump blues paved the way for the uptempo rock and roll that followed.
John Kander and Fred Ebb - Shows like "Chicago" and "Cabaret" remade the Broadway.
BB King - Hailed as one of the great guitarists, King updated the blues for new audiences.
Carole King - Songwriter par excellence, her work created an upheaval in the early 70s.
Hector Lavoe - Puerto Rico's salsa icon was instrumental to every major act of the era.
Henry Mancini - And the definitive sound of the American movie soundtrack is born.
Johnny Mercer - Four Academy Award wins - nineteen nominations. Song-writing legacy.
Metallica - Punk had died - something had to pick up the torch.
CharlesMingus - The top of the hard bop and post-bop composers.
Thelonious Monk - Monk's slight output is one of the most revered and covered in jazz.
Bill Monroe - Split bluegrass off as its own distinct genre from country.
Jelly Roll Morton - Morton is the exemplar of the early New Orleans style of jazz.
Billy Murray - Murray was America's first hugely popular first recording star.
Willie Nelson - Outlaw Nelson moved country away from symphonies back to roots.
Nirvana - Grunge helped define the 90s, and made rock do a 180 away from the 80s.
NWA - The hiphop equivalent of punk - an angry, powerful voice that shaped a decade.
Charlie Parker - Bebop's icon, and the form's foremost practitioner.
Les Paul and Mary Ford - Paul made the guitar, Ford displayed his multi-track recording.
Cole Porter - America's cleverest lyricist who dominated Broadway and popular song.
Elvis Presley - Mixed in his country boy roots to give rock and roll its missing ingredient.
Prince - Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who redefined R&B and rock through fusion.
Public Enemy - The first politically and socially conscious rap group.
Tito Puente - His popularity made him the main proponent of Caribbean music's influence.
The Ramones - Arguably perfected in England, punk began in America.
Little Richard - "[S]omething could be louder than that... And I found out it was me."
Eck Robertson - The first country recordings were made by Robertson in the 1920s.
Paul Robeson - Robeson's operatic voice for civil rights later had him blacklisted.  
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles - Helped define the Motown sound with tons of hits.
Jimmie Rodgers - Yodeling didn't have to be a part of country music.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein - "Oklahoma". "The Sound of Music". Legacy.
Run DMC - Run DMC broke the barriers and records - the last hiphop group to rock.
Carlos Santana - After Ritchie Valens, Latin rock remained dormant until Santana.
Pete Seeger - In 1947 he changed "I Will Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome" and...
The Shirelles - The original girl group, creating songs that became standards.
Nina Simone - Sometimes a louder, angrier voice is needed to sing truth to power.
Frank Sinatra - King of the crooners, the smooth vocals of jazz, the pop standards...
Bessie Smith - The first great blues singer. Her songs brought those pleading tones.
Patti Smith - The great-godmother of punk also ushered in spoken-word poetry to rock.
Stephen Sondheim - Broadway legend: "West Side Story", "Sweeney Todd", "Company".
Roy Rogers - Roy Rogers' was the face of Western music - in film, and later television. 
Bruce Springsteen - After the 60s introspection he brought rock back to teens in cars.
Barbara Streisand - Icon vocalist of stage and screen.
The Supremes - Record-breaking #1 hit machine, The Supremes became essential.
Talking Heads - No New Wave group captured the existential feel of the era quite so well.
James Taylor - His work led to a host of imitators in the 70s and beyond.
The Temptations - The Temptations were able to adapt and innovate through the 60s.
The Velvet Underground - Defiantly wrote about sex, drugs, and violence before anyone.
Muddy Waters - Electrified blues, made it relevant to a generation, brought it to Chicago.
Kanye West - The first significant rapper of the post-NWA (post-gangsta) period.
Hank Williams - Williams wrote original tunes, whose style was quickly copied.
Howlin Wolf - Influential blues singer of his time, and composer of many a standard.
Stevie Wonder - Talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who defined a decade.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 in Books

As has become an annual tradition, here is a look back at the books I read, 2016. Best of at the bottom.

Nonfiction

Treatise on Thermodynamics by Max Planck

The first third is eminently readable for a layperson – a trait so often lacking in scientific works. Unfortunately the next two hundred pages are nigh incomprehensible even when attempting to decipher the equations. That said, I’m glad it clarified the first two laws for me.

Collected Essays of Rudolf Eucken

Eucken is an apologist, and slathers on the unquestioned assumptions in a way I personally think is unbefitting for a philosopher. A couple of choice sections, though.

Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier

The ideas in this odd manifesto are interesting, but for someone who speaks of utility so highly it seems almost hypocritical that his writing style should take such great effort to engage with. The introduction refers to the style as ‘staccato’ and I can think of no better word – you have to fight with each sentence and paragraph’s upsetting abruptness.

Ancient Civilizations of the Old World by Charles Keith Maisels

Maisels’ rather academic work carefully looks at the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indus, and Chinese civilizations, focusing on the transition from hunter-gathers to statehood. Of particular interest is the section on the Indus, but the whole work is very solid, well-researched, a brimming with graphs, pictures, schemata, drawings, and prudently considered arguments.

The White Rectangle by Kazimir Malevich

The originator of Suprematism (and one of the founders of all abstract art) had some thoughts on film. Some reactionary, not particularly deep, thoughts. Stick to Walter Benjamin.

The Orchard by Saadi

A mixture of tales and autobiography this slim volume of 13th-century wisdom is an interesting read. If possible endeavor to find a translation that preserves the rhyming couplets – although I know of none.

Cuisine & Empire by Rachel Laudan

Very informative, brisk, scholarly and chockfull of interesting anecdotes. I’d long been interested in food history, but never taken the time to delve. So I was pleased to not be disappointed.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog by Ai Weiwei

Much of this translated collection is from 2006, discussing architecture and the role of art in totalitarian China. In 2009, though, the criticism begins, comprising the last fifty pages of the 240 pages of blog entries.

One Two Three Infinity by George Gamow

An odd little work. I can’t recommend it for a few reasons: the science has progressed significantly, the explanations are not elucidating, and, though a small point it stuck in my craw: the pictures half the time are pointless, and half the time are not helpful. It’s remarkable to me that Gamow’s work was so popular. His style of writing is not illuminating.

A History of Rome Under the Emperors by Theodor Mommsen

The first section on the Julio-Claudian emperors was very good – but I picked up the work to know more about what came after Nero. Unfortunately, it gets lost deep in the weeds. Without compelling biographies long dry passages on tax and state treasury details, relatively insignificant frontier wars, and so forth bogs the work down. The final third is buoyed somewhat by the early interactions with the growing power of the Christian church and the biographies of Diocletian, Constantine, and Julian – but not enough. The end feels like a race to the finish, by which point I’d lost all interest.

Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener

About 40 pages of this 200 page volume are indecipherable logarithmic sorts of things. However, the other 160-ish pages are really rather fascinating. Be warned, though: Wiener alights from topic to topic with remarkable agility, from Lewis Carroll to Leibniz, Turning to Margaret Meade, Pavlov to Locke, and Von Neumann to Russell. Some familiarity, therefore, with the Western Canon is a must.

Fiction

American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa

A collection that begins with Dakota Sioux legends, then turns autobiographical in recollections for growing up when Native Americans were being “civilized” at boarding schools, and ending on various political works and poems. I’m glad to have encountered this author.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa

A world-classic, and likely the greatest novel in Brazilian literature, unfortunately this book is very hard to get your hands on. It was only translated into English once, about 70 years ago, and has long been out of print. If you can find it, though, it is definitely worth a read. Rosa’s language is similar to Joyce, in that there’s a rather unique rhythm to adapt to at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s smooth sailing.

History by Elsa Morante

The first chapter of this work drew me in, and it was an engaging read throughout the majority. A Roman family’s struggles to survive World War II – it certainly shares a crowded field, which makes its ability to stand out more remarkable.

Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

The title is a perfectly good description – Neruda is well regarded as one of the finest composers of love poems the world has seen. Precociously he produced this collection at the age of just 19.

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

Continuing my annual tradition of reading at least one piece of French literature from the 1800s – of which there is a great deal to catch up – I had no expectations for Stendhal, or this particular work. What followed surprised me, with a focus almost entirely unlike what I had presumed.

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

A sort-of updated Conrad, I think it is important to distinguish Naipaul’s character from the author. The work got a lot of flak for being colonialist, or neocolonialist, but since the main character comes from a colonial heritage…that shouldn’t be too odd of a view for him to have. Overall the work had interesting insights and, in my opinion, is miles away from Achebe’s deft criticisms of Conrad in “An Image of Africa”.

The Charles Men by Verner von Heidenstam

It’s difficult to recommend this work. It deals with Swedish heroes of the Great Northern War, and is written for a Swedish audience. Familiarity is expected, and the passing saga-like references are many. Annotations would be burdensome, however. If not bogged down by missed references, it’s an entertaining read.

Chickweed Wintergreen by Harry Martinson

Continuing the Swedish theme, this collection is the most complete of Martinson’s poems. His arc begins with exotica from his sailing days, then reaches the cosmic, before returning to the everyday observations of his world. But the arc is not heroic – his return only sometimes glimpses the cosmic to which he flew. I think his best poems were from a collection entitled Cicada, published in 1953, just prior to his epic space poem, Aniara (selections of which are included and are quite good). Since Cicada, in full, is not available in English I would recommend this collection for anyone interested in the cosmic-everyday interplay.

Children of Gebelaawi by Naguib Mahfouz

Long, long on my to-read list, this work did not disappoint. Allegorical, but inventive, with a closing section that is on-par with Dostoevsky’s ‘Grand Inquisitor’ for boldness and ingenuity.

The Georgics by Claude Simon

Verging on unreadable. Nice idea – a battle fought on the same place by a Napoleonic ancestor as fought by the author during WWII – but so self-consciously stream-of-consciousness/Faulknerian that it can only be described as poorly rendered.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

It takes a particularly adept author to write at length, sincerely and unapologetically, about a Pentecostal revival while holding the attention of an atheist reader like me. This book immediately became part of my ‘Essential American Literature’.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

This one’s tough. Parts appear on the horizon so early you know what’s going to happen thirty pages in advance, leaving a plot to get through instead of enjoy. But on the other hand it does a nice job with certain aspects of psychological portraiture.

Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda

Little-known Italian novelist in the English-speaking world. Humans = reeds, wind = fate. There you go.

People in the Summer Night by Frans Sillanpaa

A very nice, episodic pastoral novel that covers the happenings of a few ethereal nights: a birth, an engagement, a death, and the artist’s own musings on it all.

The Fall of the King by Johannes V. Jensen

I usually am not fond of characters with implausibly tangled arcs – one person has a son who daughter marries the foe of the other whose child then etc. Jensen manages such an arc, and only once or twice pushes the reader to the point of incredulity. Even without a command of Danish history this sixteenth-century-based story is a nice piece of modernist prose.

The Pilgrim Kamanita by Karl Gjellerup

If you remove 2/3 of the Buddhist-esque (through Danish interpretation) philosophy, this would actually make a good film. Reincarnation, eternal lovers, but unfortunately bad writing – original, but not recommendable.

The Thibaults by Roger Martin du Gard

An underappreciated novel – no doubt due to the scarcity in English editions. In the years leading up to the First World War two brothers and a domineering father take different trajectories to deal with their surroundings and challenges. Sounds rote, but du Gard handles the psychologies as deftly as Dostoevsky’s brothers, and with a remarkable naturalistic clarity.

The Days of His Grace by Eyvind Johnson

Admittedly, all the medieval stories of service to one’s king I’ve read this year are beginning to blend in my mind. Set in the waning years of the eighth century I seem to have traveled backwards in pursuit of this theme: The Charles Men, was set in the early modern period, and The Fall of the King in the high medieval. This time one family’s connection to Charlemagne is explored. Johnson’s Nobel Prize is undoubtedly ignominious – having nominated himself as a member of the Academy – but the novel isn’t bad, and has some nice passages. Not a bad read, but not too likely to leave an impression.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

A book that feels more important than good – lots of interesting concepts. I’ve felt its reverberations throughout media for a long time, but all in all the original work didn’t impress. Too many convoluted unexplained terms and mind-bending concepts obfuscate the Blade Runner-ish plot.

The Peasants: Autumn by Wladyslaw Reymont

A bunch of Polish peasants have petty disputes over acreage, religion, and relationships.

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

“Complete” should make one wary. What to say of this collection? It is split it two parts, the longer and the shorter. From the longer, I have long admired ‘In the Penal Colony’ as one of the best short stories ever written. Other highlights from that section include ‘The Hunger Artist’, and ‘Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor’. In general, though, I found the shorter stories to be far better, which account for less than a fifth of the total volume. Some of the longer stories are nigh-unreadable, so perhaps a selection would be best for most casual readers.

Madwomen by Gabriela Mistral

A selection of poems focusing on female perspectives by the acclaimed Chilean Nobel Laureate. As the works go on, as is often the case, the poems mature and become more noteworthy. Particularly adept are her treatments of Greek mythological characters: Antigone, Cassandra, and Clytemnestra.

Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire (Trans. George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay)

A defining texts of early modernity, the benefit of this translation is that the meter and rhyme is kept – no small feat. The drawback is this leads to a looseness of translation. The edition overcomes this problem with a dual language format, so you may check the opposite page and reassure yourself of Millay's more free-form choices. At its worst the translation comes off as merely dyspeptic, instead of bearing the full weight of Baudelaire's unique "indolence".

Masnavi Books I-III by Rumi (Trans. Jawid Mojaddedi)

I found this translation difficult to bear. The jangly couplets with modern phraseology are likely vastly inferior to the Persian original.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Having seen the Fassbinder adaptation I was surprised by the many differences – most notably the pacing. Doblin’s modernist prose is of a unique type, but it can be grating in the current English translation (by Eugene Jolas). All in all it’s original enough to be rewarding for those both willing to put in the time for 600+ pages, and who are particularly drawn to modernist writing.

Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Imre Kertesz

This slim, but strenuous novella of recursive psychological scrutiny and identity is likely to be worth the effort. It is a difficult prospect to shed new intellectual and emotional light on the ramifications of a childhood and adulthood effected by Auschwitz, but Kertesz manages to do so in an intensely personal fashion.

Graphic Novels

The Planetary Omnibus by Warren Ellis and John Cassady

As a big fan of Ellis’ work on Transmetropolitan I found Planetary a bit oblique. References are deep and left to the viewer to figure out – I had the distinct impression of not getting everything out of it I should have. Sort of like overhearing a bunch of in-jokes, and while you’re able to work out some, you’re very aware of the ones you missed.

Top 5

1.      Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire
2.      Children of Gebelaawi by Naguib Mahfouz
3.      The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa
4.      Tie! The Red and the Black by Stendhal / People in the Summer Night by Frans Sillanpaa

5.      Cuisine & Empire by Rachel Laudan

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Minor Chords for Christmas

This December has felt extraordinarily un-Christmasy.

I grew up loving Christmas, with a deep abiding faith and wonder. As I am no longer a person of faith it makes the holiday season nostalgic in the Mad Men way:


This nostalgia is potent for me, having returned to just outside of the city where I grew up. Every morning I step outside and see my childhood home across the Bay. At sunset the Western sky casts a shadow that fades to the universal intrigue of city lights.

The view from my apartment.

Christmas is typically an experience that's nostalgic for one's childhood - and for family. For me, the familial aspect has never dominated my feelings. Even when I was young Christmas was about faith. And history.

For I went to school in this building:



And, as a cathedral is designed to do, it awed me. The structure had something medieval that overwhelmed me a child. Those tapestries pictured are original Flemish and Belgian works of art from the Middle Ages. The exterior is based on Notre Dame.

My childhood faith was deeply historical for me, and the legacy of Christendom was the source of much of the appeal and mystery.

There is a tradition, with Christmas, that goes back to the earliest Christmas music we have, from the beginning, of minor chords, and a sorrowful aspect. Those Christmas songs and hymns that are triumphant and celebratory miss the point - the empathy - of the story. Jesus' birth must strike one as tragic - for we know the suffering that must befall him. Indeed, it is a selfish, on-the-knees, weeping sort of ecstasy that would be thankful for the birth of Jesus, seeing Jesus as the alleviation of sins. There is a servile, cringing, component to that rendering.

But the empathetic version, the young man who must suffer and die - whose fate we know through the story - is tragic at birth in the same fashion of the Greek Cassandra. Knowing the future makes the present painful to bear.

So, as I gaze across the Bay to the city of my home, and think, as I have so often done as an adult, how lucky my childhood was - how fortunate those of us who grew up in that privileged decade really were - and how innocent, more so perhaps than any others - I consider the melancholic Christmas songs, ranging across centuries, written and sung by those who understood the essential tragedy of life, the sorrow of our own births foretelling the hardships and sacrifices we all must bear.

Here, then, are five of those minor chord songs that, to me, mean Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet - 15th century

What Child Is This / Greensleeves - 1865

O Come O Come Emmanuel - 1861

The Angel Gabriel - Trad. Basque

Past Thee O'Clock - Trad. English, adapted 1924