Sunday, July 31, 2011

On War -- #I

My first post on war and guns, about which I feel strongly.  Turner Classic Movies ran All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) last night.  I had read the book almost 50 years ago and thought I had seen the film, but I am not sure that I had.   Really powerful depiction of the truth of war.  Even though we don’t draft young men and send them off into trenches to die by the thousands as human sacrifice (as was done in WWI), it still is about fooling young men into the glory of combat and dying for one’s fatherland.  Nobody tells them about wounds and pain and hunger, PTSD and the feelings that might accompany killing.

One good scene has a half dozen German soldiers asking themselves who benefits from war.  One suggests that maybe at root it is the manufacturers of all their guns and supplies, but they can’t quite understand why even they would want war.  Given the reality of war who could want profits more?  And who can figure how it started or who started it?  Lou Ayers, the star actor was a favorite of my Mother’s, and he became a CO medic in WWII as a result of acting in this film.  I had to sue Ramsey Clark and refuse induction 2 or 3 times (can’t even remember) to get the government to back down, and by then I was in seminary.

Relentless explosions and machine gun fire are a feature of the extensive battle scenes.  Some soldiers go mad from this.  This reminds me of my thought after our band concerts: One should be wary of liking fireworks for they are meant to simulate all kinds of mayhem and destruction.  The soldiers knew that when the shelling stopped and it became quiet – that meant an attack was coming.  The hero learns that he can’t go home again.  He is not the same person he was before the war, and it isn’t about growth.  I will not spoil the ending.  If you don’t know it, watch the entire film.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Mohican Concert Band

Thursday evening we presented a great concert in Shepard Park on the shore of Lake George in the Village of Lake George.  The crowd was the largest I have ever seen there, in front of the bandshell for the concert and behind it for the fireworks which followed.  Actually, it is not a bandshell, but a pavillion so that watching the band you can look through over the heads of the musicians to the lake and all of the boats out there with a background of mountains and greenery.  Fortunately, the steamboat that passes has a whistle tuned to a good enough Bb.

Director Ray Durkee brought together the local Galloway Pipe and Drum group with the band, to perform as the finale an arrangement of the Gael and Gigue from the film Last of the Mohicans.  Wow.  Lots of drums. From very soft to very loud and very full chords and of course, drones from I think eight bagpipes.

We were concerned about the decibels from the bagpipes, but outdoors this was not much of a problem.  My issue is that sitting in the middle of the band, I don’t hear much of anything except the brass behind me and to my left.  This is the dark side of the reason I play in the band – there is nothing like being part of a group making richly textured and sounding music.  I wish we had a recording of this.  We have recordings of some of our indoor concerts, but they don’t quite seem to do justice to us. Or maybe we just seem better than we are?  I think we are pretty good.

There is that subjectivity again.  But you can’t beat live music, even when it is flawed.  A post on the perils of compressed mp3 and wma files and what they have done to our perceptions of music is needed.  And one on the Get Me Hi Club in Chicago where the bartenders wear teeshirts proclaiming “Bad sax is better than no sax at all.”

Friday, July 29, 2011

My Favorite Church

I have visited and preached in many churches.  I don’t know why I thought about this now, but in my opinion the most beautiful, most gorgeous, most aesthetically pleasing church building with the best acoustics that I have seen is Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago, 1936 S. Michigan Avenue.  I never did get the 150 angels (in a Presbyterian church?), but the theme of the Arts and Crafts Movement design is LIFE.  The main feature in the chancel is the tree of life and every piece of wood in the building is carved with snakes and salamanders and fish and flowers and bugs and other assorted living things.  Like Noah’s ark.  No child brought here would ever be bored.  It makes you feel good.

It’s not as busy as it sounds or even as it appears in photos, although I would do away with the 2 giant candelabra, and I know that the Italianate baptismal font was added in the ‘80's.  (Pastor Gordon Irvine, RIP, learned that a glass bowl had to be inserted when he discovered that water soaks immediately into the stone!)  The exterior of the building gives no hint of the interior.

You can stand at the pulpit, project your voice just a bit, and be heard in every corner of the building. (They didn’t have any sound system when I preached there in the early ‘90's.  I hope they didn’t add one.)

Of course all this beauty was created in support of wealth and privilege.  This was the neighborhood of the rich and powerful at the turn of the 20th century.  Perhaps this explains the emphasis on life over the cross.  Of course life includes death, but most kinds of Christianity are death focused.  I’ve never seen this extreme emphasis on life in any other church.  It is refreshing.

The membership when I was there was about 150, with maybe 50 worshiping in the summer.  The crowds on the architectural tour waiting to see the Tiffany windows after worship was larger.  Now membership is 105.  I guess the music is still terrific.  (They did jazz, too!)  I think the neighborhood is less run down after 2 decades of development.  Hard to understand why so many pack gothic 4th church 3 miles north.  More detailed pictures of the church are found at:

There are such things as “sacred spaces,” but we project such qualities onto particular designs or places, some natural.  They are not “sacred” or “holy” in themselves, but we decide subjectively that they are so.  We make sacred space; it is not given.  Winston Churchill is credited by some as having said something very important: “Architectecture always wins.”  Our surroundings make us who we are and influence what we can become.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dennis Lehane Strikes Again

If you liked Mystic River and Shutter Island, try The Given Day.  I hope it gets to film.  The Given Day is about America, specificallly Boston, from 1917-1919.   Babe Ruth and the Red Sox are here, but also African-Americans from Ohio and then Oklahoma, and of course, the Irish.  We learn about the great Mollasas flood (This is for real!), the great influenza outbreak (This was real, too, and apparently began in Boston), and most of all the great police strike of 1919.  Our hero is a police detective who is ordered to infiltrate the anarchist and communist groups of the time, sort of like Muslims today.

This book is well researched history, but it is also about today.  Published in 2009, it was eerie to read about labor struggles and defeats last winter while Scott Walker the cruel was crushing the public worker unions in Wisconsin.

I was a conservative republican my first two years of college.  I was acting out against my Dad’s unionist Democratic Party politics.  By the time I graduated I had changed.  I was proud that my Dad could come to my graduation and hear Walter Reuther give the commencement address.  (I wish I could find a copy of this speech in the U of Iowa archives.)

Lots of lessons here.  Again it is about failure.  And how ultimate success often comes through the sacrifice and deaths and failure of thousands before us.  Changing the world is really hard, but we dare not say impossible.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Betamax, Dvorak, and Leblanc Rationale

Lots of folk remember how Sony Betamax was a superior format to the VHS which won out in the video tape wars of the ‘70's and ‘80's.  The first Betamax tapes would only go for an hour, and by the time this was improved, they were history.  Everyone else decided to sell on VHS early on, so some of us never even saw Betamax.

I had an Apple Iic computer that had a switch to allow the user to type with the Dvorak system, designed in 1936 to improve the QUERTY keyboard we all know and don’t love.  The “simplified keyboard” placed the most used letters where they were easiest to access.  The old QUERTY keyboard was designed to place letters away from where they might easily be used.  This was because early typewriters were big, heavy, slow, klunky mechanical things.  If you typed too fast you could beat the mechanism.  But if you used Dvorak, you could never type on a standard keyboard, and everyone still used and taught QUERTY.

“One hundred years after the invention of the saxophone, Messrs. Leon LeBlanc; Georges Leblanc;  and Charles Houvenaghel developed a unique instrument which offered viable solutions to problems which had plagued saxophonists since the very beginning. By using innovative key mechanisms and following the true Bohem theory of tone hole placement, they produced an instrument which is unsurpassed in technical facility and even voicing.  Unfortunately, this complex instrument did not gain wide market acceptance, and was withdrawn after a limited production run.” (– Steve Goodson, the Sax Gourmet, and designer of my weird Orpheos -- Also, there is a brief mention in The Devil's Horn, p. 183.)

Here is a pic of the Vito system alto that I owned.  I was intrigued because Johnny Hodges of the Ellington band (orchestra is more exact) played one.  It had a high F# played with the left pinky.  You can spot these horns because there are two extra tone holes, one below the right hand D key, not found on other saxes.  You could drop a half step while playing C,B,Bb,A,Ab or G by playing any key with the right hand.  Intonation was nearly perfect.  Vito had cork rather than screws and nuts for adjustments.  But it was RATIONAL.  Again, if you learn this system you can't play a standard sax, and no one is teaching the LeBlanc system.
Ooops.  My spouse is yelling at me -- Oh.  She is saying "Why do you write and talk about this stuff.  Nobody but you cares!"

Well, there is a message here.  Theology, economics, and political theory are enhanced by this lesson.  THAT WHICH IS RATIONAL, SENSIBLE, OR BETTER DOESN'T ALWAYS SUCCEED.  Think about it.  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Roots of Music (according to Binky)

I found this cleaning out old music files.  (If you click on the pic, you can enlarge it.  Or copy and save the file you will have a pic that can be enlarged in, e.g., Windows Photo Gallery.)  Oddly, there is no classical, symphonic, concert band, marching band, or any kind of jazz in this family tree of music.  Otherwise, it seems quite accurate.

My teacher in River Forest IL, Shelly Yoelin, had a page from an old 1920's book showing the "development of music," growing ever more sophisticated in a classical vein.  A road led to a castle representing the highest and best music of all.  Jazz was represented as "the slough of despond" into which one fell if one left the classical road.

You will note that bagpipes are described as descended from pig squealing, and heavy metal from temper tantrums and venereal diseases.  How does Groening know all this stuff??

Poem from Night of the Iguana

One of the things that drives this blog is something that has occurred since my retirement:  I remember things from my youth that I don't want to forget and that I want to share.  A friend and I saw the film adaptation of Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams.   Deborah Kerr (not just an adolescent fantasy!) is caretaker for her aging and ailing grandfather, who writes this poem before he dies.  My friend and I memorized the poem at the time, but only phrases remain in my mind.

How calmly does the olive branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Some time while light obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever
And from thence
A second history will commence

A chronicle no longer gold
A bargaining with mist and mold
And finally the broken stem
The plummeting to earth, and then

An intercourse not well designed
For beings of a golden kind
Whose native green must arch above
The earth's obscene corrupting love

And still the ripe fruit and the branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Oh courage! Could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me 

I have always thought that this was high quality, non supermatural theology.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Devil's Horn - Berlioz on Sax and His New Invention

Time to talk about saxophones.  I am reading a book called The Devil's Horn, by Michael Segell (2005).  Sax arrived in Paris in 1839 and won over Hector Berlioz, who promoted Sax in 1842 by writing:

“It cries, signs and dreams.  It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish its sound until it is only an echo of an echo of an echo – until its sound becomes crepuscular*.  The timbre of the saxophon has something vexing and sad about it in the high register; the low notes to the contrary are of a grandiose nature, one could say pontifical.  For works of a mysterious and solemn character, the saxophon is, in my mind, the most beautiful low voice known to this day.”

Apparently, Sax fled Brussels because other musicians hated his instruments.  Segell says it was only the first time "heads of state, local police, educators, symphonic conductors, film censors, and a host of other moral arbiters, including the Vatican" would attempt to silence the carnal and voluptuous sound.  Wow.  All of this by page 12.

*Crepuscular is one of my favorite French words, having to do with the contrasts and odd brightness of light in the shadows at twilight, evoking Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Monet, Renoir and others.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Letter to Glens Falls Post-Star

I see that Congressman Chris Gibson voted for the so-called “cut, cap, and balance” bill.  This bill is merely symbolic, but it is also a sign of the Republican design to freeze the economy to defeat Obama, and to hamper the government so that it will be unable to respond to this or future recessions.  I don’t think this is what people had in mind when they voted for Chris.  We have to grow ourselves out of this financial crisis.  We need investment in education, support for the unemployed, and a public jobs program.  These are elements of a vision for a better future for the nation.  What is the Republican vision?  Is it only unrestrained pollution, an end to regulation of the food and water supply, social service retrenchment, and wealth accumulation for a few?

Oh, No! Another Blog!

Why, why, why?   Because I was a preacher and don’t get enough chances to speak out or teach.  Blogs were created for retired preachers.  Yup.  Unfortunately, a lot of those preachers, active or retired, are ridiculous religulous who preach hellfire, division, certainty, and other fundamentalist claptrap.  So I have to try to balance the field, with a few friends.  And of course –

“Be warned, that there is no end to the making of books, and much study simply tires us out.”
(Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth, translation from Such is Life by Lloyd Geering, about whom more will be said.)

Social Security

I arrive in the regional SS offices 10 minutes before they open and there are already a dozen people there.  And the security guard.  I used to wonder why there was one until I received the letter last week notifying me that I owed $5,000 to SS for overpayment of benefits.  I left my pitchfork and torch at home, but it was obvious that others had the same feelings of loss, powerlessness, fear, and rage at the machine.  There were the disabled trying to secure or recover benefits so that they could live without the ability to work.  There was a young mother who was an orphan, and entitled to support.  Others I could not tell, but I could sense the despair of having nowhere else to come for the safety net.  Odd that there was no one applying for a card or planning retirement, but perhaps they are serviced online.  Must be, because when I saw the counselor, she was one of only 4, and told me that staff had been cut in half in the past year since I had been there last.  As it turns out, I do have resources; able to recover tax forms and demonstrate that a Turbo Tax error (yes, watch out!) had generated too much self employment income for me in 2009.  I can file an amended return, so the cursing, tears, and heart palpitations were unnecessary though the fear was real.  Less real than it is for a lot of other folk.

So when Republicans derisively speak of cutting or reforming Social Security, as if recipients are somehow unworthy or undeserving, my rage returns again and again.  Those who would gut the New Deal and the safety net that was constructed in the 20th century are playing with human lives.  The good news is that SS is fully funded for another 20-30 years, and if Congress would keep their hands out of the till it will be good for longer still.  Remember Al Gore’s lockbox?  Shoulda done it.