Shall We Dance?

I enjoy creating new music in my home studio. Trouble is, who is ever going to hear it? The five people who visit my website? Emily Dickinson, who put her poems in a shoebox, is not one of my heroes. For better or worse, I’d like to find a decent way to get my music out into the world. Not saying I want to be rich and famous, just saying, “Shoebox — no, thanks.”

This is difficult to manage. At the end of This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin suggests some reasons why.

First, music and dance seem to have evolved together, primarily as fitness displays. (Social bonding may also have played a role.) It’s only in the last couple of hundred years that audiences have been sitting quietly and listening rather than participating.

Second, the recent discovery of “mirror neurons” suggests that what audiences do is more active than we supposed. If you watch a dancer performing a step, for instance, you aren’t just taking in visual information. The neurons in your brain that would be used to execute that same step Read more

Once More, with Feeling

Milton Babbitt has died, at the ripe age of 94. I had never paid much attention to his music; what I knew about it (Babbitt advocated “total serialism”) failed to pique my interest. But today people on Facebook were posting links, so I listened to a couple of his pieces.

One hesitates to speak ill of the recently departed. I’m sure Babbitt was a very bright guy, and passionately dedicated to his art. But I can’t help feeling that he utterly failed to understand the nature of music. He was swept up in an academic, intellectual whirlwind that attempted, with considerable success, to divorce the production and content of music from any sort of human feeling. You can listen to his music, but you won’t get anything out of it, because there’s nothing to be gotten out of it.

Music exists in a sort of dynamic tension or interplay between repetition and change. Repetition leads to predictability: As we listen, we will inevitably try to  Read more

One No Trump

For most of her life, my mother has been an active bridge player. In the 1940s and ’50s, when this started, there pretty much wasn’t any such thing as television. People got together in the evening to play bridge.

Until a few months ago, Mom was still playing bridge in a couple of different card clubs. What’s very noticeable about these clubs is that all of the women in them (which is to say, all of the people — they’re women’s card clubs) are over 70. Many of the participants are over 80.

Playing bridge is no longer an attractive social activity for young adults. Times have changed, and decisively, since the 1940s.

The situation in community orchestras is less extreme, but it’s part of the same dynamic. The demographic of orchestra members shows Read more

What’s the Point?

On a 3-by-5 card tucked into a little tin box of recipes (now, in all likelihood, on its way to the landfill), my mother wrote down a few notes about my childhood accomplishments. After recording my SAT scores, she added, “The teachers at Livermore High say these are the highest scores they’ve ever seen.”

Mostly I don’t think about being bright, any more than fish think about water. I’m far more likely to be thinking about the clever harmonic manipulations in Haydn and Clementi, or some thorny problem in computer programming, or the book I’m reading, or the book I’m writing.

Once in a while, though, I get into a pointless wrangle with somebody, as I did tonight, and then it jumps up and smacks me in the face: Of course! That guy is stupid! That’s why he isn’t willing to discuss the topic in a rational way.

Stupid people are, in my experience, usually quite enamored of the idea that their opinion is as valid as anybody else’s. If you try to explain Read more

Is Religious Tolerance Necessary?

The more I think about religion, the more disgusted I become. The evils perpetrated in the name of religion outweigh the good a thousandfold. Not all religions are equally reprehensible, of course. The Quakers seem, from what I’ve read, to be a rather benign bunch; the Moslems, less so.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that religious faith is, by definition, irrational. That is, religious faith asserts as fact various things that cannot be rationally proven, things for which there is no credible evidence whatever. And it is invariably an article of faith that no rational proof is required. From time to time, supposed rational proofs (bleeding statues or whatever) are trotted out. They invariably prove to be hoaxes, or simply egregious misuses of reason. Strangely, the lack of evidence fails to shake and may even reinforce the faith of the believer.

What hope is there for a tool-using species that can’t overcome such madness?

When I was younger, I had no strong feelings about religious faith, other than that I thought it was all rather silly. I considered such activities as Catholicism and Judaism Read more

Talking Moose

My interview with Pomplamoose is out! It’s featured in the February issue of Keyboard. Not available online, of course — you’ll have to actually buy a copy. (How 20th century.)

I don’t remember how I stumbled onto them. They have a couple of dozen music videos up on YouTube, and they’re just a unique band. Classic pop arrangements and lots of video energy. Plus, they’re a true viral … well, whatever noun goes with “viral,” I guess. Some of their videos have racked up millions of views. And this without a record deal of any kind, or indeed a record of any kind.

It surely helps that Nataly Dawn is good-looking, but I can’t imagine that there’s a shortage of good-looking young women on YouTube. What they have going for them is not just one ingredient, it’s a blend.

I interviewed them on Skype, which was a first for me. They were at home someplace up in Marin, and I was in my home office in the East Bay, and we could see one another while we talked.

I haven’t done a lot of artist interviews in the course of my career as a music magazine writer, but most of the interviews I’ve done have been carefully chosen — chosen on the basis that I actually wanted to do the interview. Brian Eno, Keith Jarrett, Glenn Gould, the Residents, and now Pomplamoose. They’re in good company, if I do say it myself.

The Pill Trolley

Three months ago we had to move my mother into an assisted living facility. She’s still pretty sharp mentally, but she needs around-the-clock care. I shopped around and found what seemed to be the best place. It’s clean, the staff is energetic, and it’s only six blocks from my house, so I can drop in every day if need be and make sure Mom is doing okay.

Unfortunately, it now appears that there may be some serious problems lurking under the surface. Short of hiring a private detective to install 24-hour video surveillance, which would be prohibitively expensive, it’s hard to know for certain. But I’m seeing a pattern.

There have been persistent issues with the care-givers not understanding how to operate Mom’s oxygen equipment. On two occasions within the past month, I’ve spotted these incidents myself … and I’m not there all the time, so how many other incidents might I have missed? Last Saturday I stood there and watched a care-giver (not medically licensed personnel, but supposedly trained) switch Mom from the in-room stationary oxygen system to a portable oxygen tank — and fail Read more

The Times, They Are a-Changin’

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes some fascinating observations about the forward movement of our collective moral zeitgeist in the past 100 years. The kind of racism, sexism, and rampant cruelty toward animals that was considered normal in 1910 is today seen, by most civilized people, as utterly barbaric.

Dawkins’s point is that little or none of this progress can be attributed to the moral influence of religion. While it’s true that a few key figures, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., were certainly motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, it’s also the case that the most backward, unenlightened, Medieval attitudes toward morality seen in the world today are entirely motivated by religious belief. We seem to have advanced, as a society, in spite of religion.

What interests me, at the moment, is not the religious angle or the moral one, but rather the fact that such a sweeping change has occurred at all. Tonight I was listening to some music distributed with The Csound Book, a fine fat tome that was published in 2000. In light of Dawkins’s description of a wholesale forward movement in the zeitgeist, it struck me that none of the music I was listening to would have been categorizable or comprehensible as music in 1900.

In the past hundred years, our musical culture has been enriched by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Webern, Shostakovich, and many other restless, exploratory classical composers. We’ve been exposed to Read more


Tonight I heard a man describe how he got through a tough time in his life — a time when he lacked the emotional resources he needed. He said, “A priest told me I needed to ask God to throw me back on the potter’s wheel and shape me into something new.” This is a powerful metaphor. Quite apart from the use of the G-word, which always makes me wince, the metaphor suggests that this man was willing to undergo a personal transformation at a fairly deep level. The metaphor itself seems to have supplied what he needed — the metaphor and his sustained focus on it.

As much as I admire the writings of Richard Dawkins and other atheists, I’m not sure they understand just how efficacious a belief in God can be for those who are in need of such a transformation. Believing that a supernatural entity of some sort can reach down and remold you, that such an entity has the power to replace your suffering with joy, give your life new meaning, and guide your footsteps into healthier pathways … that sort of belief can and does change people for the better, quite irrespective of whether the entity to whom they turn for succor actually exists.

It’s also the case that some people (perhaps, indeed, most people, though it may be condescending of me to say so) need to have a simple, clear, externally imposed structure in their lives. They need to know the rules in order to avoid making bad choices. For such people, conventional religion may provide an effective way of life. Quite possibly, nothing else would do the job. If you believe Read more

Why I Am Not a Patriot

Patriotism is widely regarded as a natural and essential virtue. Other views of the matter are, however, defensible. I do not feel even remotely patriotic, and I’m suspicious of the motives and intellectual capacity of those who do. Here are the principle difficulties that I see with patriotism.

National boundaries are, in every case, the result of historical accident. How is it even possible to align oneself emotionally with the outcome of a historical accident? Two hundred years ago, California was part of Mexico. Two hundred years in the future, it may well be an administrative region of China. I feel some affection for the hills and valleys of California, but how could I sensibly transfer that feeling onto the United States of America?

National boundaries are an abstraction, and exist only for administrative purposes. There is, in fact, no such thing as a border between nations. A border is an abstraction that exists only because we all agree that it exists. You can walk, if you care to, from France to Russia without at any point crossing anything that could be construed as a physical (that is, geological) boundary. National borders exist only because they are guarded by soldiers, and the soldiers are there only because rich and powerful men issue the orders. The motives of the rich and powerful we should always regard with deep suspicion.

The world is a single entity. Thanks to the global reach of our transportation systems, it is the height of foolishness to promote the interests of one group of people at the expense of another group. No man is an island: all are part of the main. Because the interests of one group of people will always, sooner or later, come into collision with Read more