Thursday, July 12, 2007

in memory of carol, who died last night

paul klee's Ancient Sound

Yit-gadal v'yit-kadash sh'may raba b'alma dee-v'ra che-ru-tay, ve'yam-lich mal-chutay b'chai-yay-chon uv'yo-may-chon uv-cha-yay d'chol beit Yisrael, ba-agala u'vitze-man ka-riv, ve'imru amen.
Y'hay sh'may raba me'varach le-alam uleh-almay alma-ya.

Yit-barach v'yish-tabach, v'yit-pa-ar v'yit-romam v'yit-nasay, v'yit-hadar v'yit-aleh v'yit-halal sh'may d'koo-d'shah, b'rich hoo. layla (ool-ayla)* meen kol beer-chata v'she-rata, toosh-b'chata v'nay-ch'mata, da-a meran b'alma, ve'imru amen.

Y'hay sh'lama raba meen sh'maya v'cha-yim aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.

O'seh shalom beem-romav, hoo ya'ah-seh shalom aleynu v'al kol Yisrael, ve'imru amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Albert Einstein & Rabindamath Tagore Talk

Excerpted from: A Tagore Reader, edied by Amiya Chakravarty

Tagore and Einstein met through a common friend, Dr. Mendel. Tagore visited Einstein at his residence at Kaputh in the suburbs of Berlin on July 14, 1930, and Einstein returned the call and visited Tagore at the Mendel home. Both conversations were recorded and the above photograph was taken. The July 14 conversation is reproduced here, and was originally published in The Religion of Man (George, Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London), Appendix II, pp. 222-225.

TAGORE: I was discussing with Dr. Mendel today the new mathematical discoveries which tell us that in the realm of infinitesimal atoms chance has its play; the drama of existence is not absolutely predestined in character.

EINSTEIN: The facts that make science tend toward this view do not say good-bye to causality.

TAGORE: Maybe not, yet it appears that the idea of causality is not in the elements, but that some other force builds up with them an organized universe.

EINSTEIN: One tries to understand in the higher plane how the order is. The order is there, where the big elements combine and guide existence, but in the minute elements this order is not perceptible.

TAGORE: Thus duality is in the depths of existence, the contradiction of free impulse and the directive will which works upon it and evolves an orderly scheme of things.

EINSTEIN: Modern physics would not say they are contradictory. Clouds look as one from a distance, but if you see them nearby, they show themselves as disorderly drops of water.

TAGORE: I find a parallel in human psychology. Our passions and desires are unruly, but our character subdues these elements into a harmonious whole. Does something similar to this happen in the physical world? Are the elements rebellious, dynamic with individual impulse? And is there a principle in the physical world which dominates them and puts them into an orderly organization?

EINSTEIN: Even the elements are not without statistical order; elements of radium will always maintain their specific order, now and ever onward, just as they have done all along. There is, then, a statistical order in the elements.

TAGORE: Otherwise, the drama of existence would be too desultory. It is the constant harmony of chance and determination which makes it eternally new and living.

EINSTEIN: I believe that whatever we do or live for has its causality; it is good, however, that we cannot see through to it.

TAGORE: There is in human affairs an element of elasticity also, some freedom within a small range which is for the expression of our personality. It is like the musical system in India, which is not so rigidly fixed as western music. Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling within the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation. In creation we follow the central law of existence, but if we do not cut ourselves adrift from it, we can have sufficient freedom within the limits of our personality for the fullest self-expression.

EINSTEIN: That is possible only when there is a strong artistic tradition in music to guide the people's mind. In Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own.

TAGORE: You have to be absolutely obedient to this too complicated music. In India, the measure of a singer's freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer's song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of the melody which he is given to interpret.

EINSTEIN: It requires a very high standard of art to realize fully the great idea in the original music, so that one can make variations upon it. In our country, the variations are often prescribed.

TAGORE: If in our conduct we can follow the law of goodness, we can have real liberty of self-expression. The principle of conduct is there, but the character which makes it true and individual is our own creation. In our music there is a duality of freedom and prescribed order.

EINSTEIN: Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?

TAGORE: Yes. In Bengal we have a kind of song-kirtan, we call it-which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment added by the singer.

EINSTEIN: Is the metrical form quite severe?

TAGORE: Yes, quite. You cannot exceed the limits of versification; the singer in all his variations must keep the rhythm and the time, which is fixed. In European music you have a comparative liberty with time, but not with melody.

EINSTEIN: Can the Indian music be sung without words? Can one understand a song without words?

TAGORE: Yes, we have songs with unmeaning words, sounds which just help to act as carriers of the notes. In North India, music is an independent art, not the interpretation of words and thoughts, as in Bengal. The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself.

EINSTEIN: Is it not polyphonic?

TAGORE: Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?

EINSTEIN: Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether.

TAGORE: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.

EINSTEIN: It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music also seems to be so.

TAGORE: It is difficult to analyze the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music; I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.

EINSTEIN: This is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer, we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural, or a convention which we accept.

TAGORE: Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.

EINSTEIN: It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.

TAGORE: Once I asked an English musician to analyze for me some classical music, and explain to me what elements make for the beauty of the piece.

EINSTEIN: The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.

TAGORE: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.

EINSTEIN: The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or in Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.

TAGORE: And yet there is always going on the process of reconciliation between them, the individual taste conforming to the universal standard.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Dying Swan

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The plain was grassy, wild and bare,
Wide, wild, and open to the air,
Which had built up everywhere
An under-roof of doleful gray.
With an inner voice the river ran,
Adown it floated a dying swan,
And loudly did lament.
It was the middle of the day.
Ever the weary wind went on,
And took the reed-tops as it went.

Some blue peaks in the distance rose,
And white against the cold-white sky,
Shone out their crowning snows.
One willow over the river wept,
And shook the wave as the wind did sigh;
Above in the wind was the swallow,
Chasing itself at its own wild will,
And far thro’ the marish green and still
The tangled water-courses slept,
Shot over with purple, and green, and yellow.

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is roll’d
Thro’ the open gates of the city afar,
To the shepherd who watcheth the evening star.
And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,
And the willow-branches hoar and dank,
And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,
And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.

Swan's Way

Mi-Xa-Cka, Chief White Swan

Swan's Nebula

Swan Lake, Montana

bluebird, bluebird

Alicia Markova as Bluebird. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. October 6, 1940.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

from "The Truth About God" by Anne Carson

God's Work

Moonlight in the kitchen is a sign of God.
The kind of sadness that is a black suction pipe extracting you
from your own navel and which the Buddhists call

"no mindcover" is a sign of God.
The blind alleys that run alongside human conversation
like lashes are a sign of God.

God's own calmness is a sign of God.
The surprisingly cold smell of potatoes or money.
Solid pieces of silence.

From these diverse signs you can see how much work remains to do.
Put away your sadness, it is a mantle of work.

Lone Ranger Religion

Disguised as a book review, this witty discourse on Lone Ranger Religions by my professor friend in NYC discusses issues of spiritual authority among the Big Three versus the polytheists. Harry (writing under an alias here) is a leader in the drug decriminalization movement and one of the sweetest iconoclasts I know. Although only half Irish, he can soberly drink any of you under the table and regale you with stories until your eyes close and the drool is leaking out of your mouth. He is currently doing research on the relation between national marijuana arrest rates and race. Makes San Francisco look pretty damn good. Watch out New Yorkers; beware Minneapolis.


By James Foley, AlterNet. Posted September 23, 2006.

Sam Harris's book "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason," which won the 2005 Pen Award for nonfiction, develops a smart, knowledgeable polemic about the growing dangers of all religious ideologies. Although I love Harris' rant, my personal obsession has long been with how weird monotheism is. Monotheism insists there is but one god, a man of course, alone in the universe for all eternity. Even as a child, I found this to be a crazy idea.

The Greeks and Romans, the Hindus, and the Egyptians all imagined many different gods who hang out together, the way people throughout the world do. These cultures envisioned social gods with busy existences who like pleasure, food, sex, art and other good things of life. As with people, the social ties among the gods loosely constrain their destructive impulses. Mostly these gods are so involved with each other they only sometimes notice the lesser beings, just as people only sometimes notice their household animals. The multiple gods of great cultural systems, and the gods and spirits of many tribal cultures as well, are familiar, understandable. They project the human world into the sky, the same way science fiction does (except, of course, science fiction understands it is offering fiction).

But monotheism posits one omnipotent, lonely sucker all by himself -- "the sky god" as Gore Vidal once called him. The first five books of the Hebrews' Bible reveal, not surprisingly, that the sky god is often angry, jealous, vengeful, and even murderous -- regularly toying with, manipulating and punishing the puny beings he creates to worship and amuse him. Not surprisingly, he's a self-absorbed ascetic who invents for his "children" bizarre, impossible-to-comply-with rules governing a multitude of tiny details of daily life. Sometimes he goes berserk about minor infractions; frequently he ignores major violations of his own rules. He's the original bad father, threatening awful punishments, with no wife, lover, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbors or relatives to reign him in.

Early Christians and then Muslims added to monotheism the great creative innovation of the promise of eternal life. A person gets to live forever if, and only if, that person closely follows the sky god's rules. This made monotheism much easier to sell, especially when coupled with the offer of extra credit toward salvation for converting others. It also made monotheism fantastically effective in motivating, inspiring, controlling and ruling people. Fueled by the monotheists' inexhaustible missionary zeal, in nearly 2,000 years this peculiar ideology has spread throughout much of the globe.

Here in the high-tech futuristic 21st century, the punitive, vengeful, sky god is as strong and legitimate as he's been in a long time. Modernity, it turns out, was no cure for monotheism. If anything, it increases extremism, especially -- but never only -- among the dispossessed. And now in the Middle East we have the volatile blend of pissed-off Jews, Muslims, and Christians, each convinced they possess an a iron-clad mandate from their one and only angry god. Mixed in as well are many weapons, lots of oil, and the dangerous, born-again idiocy of George W. Bush and other prominent Republicans. All this is concentrated on the turf that monotheists everywhere see as their origin, their home, their "holy land."

Present-day America's most popular form of lunatic monotheism -- fundamentalist, evangelical Protestantism (and especially end-of-days Christianity with tens of millions of believers convinced that Jesus is returning soon) -- is deeply obsessed with the holy land. Crazed Christian fundamentalists love it when crazed Jewish warriors battle it out with crazed Islamic warriors. The Pat Robertsons regard the wars as win-win and ordinary believers see them as signs that the saved will soon be lifted to heaven. Unfortunately, these fundamentalist Christians now have enormous influence over the foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the world.

Most monotheists want governments to punish people who fail to obey some of the sky god's ascetic rules. Even moderate, middle-of-the-road monotheists -- like the Roman Catholic Church -- pressure governments to criminalize and punish homosexuality, drug use and abortion. The large and growing numbers of Christian, Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists have far grander ambitions.

Inevitably, some prominent believers turn out to have long been hypocrites, liars and secret sinners -- adulterers, gamblers, drug users, homosexuals. But hypocrisy poses no threat to the monotheists who say the hidden sins demonstrate the awful power of the evils they battle. The self-righteous condemn the sins, of course, but they actually approve of the lies, insisting that "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue -- to the one heavenly lord.

Monotheists, especially in scary and desperate times like our own, easily hate other monotheisms and often loath variants of their own brand. And while they have often been happy to butcher polytheists by the wagonload, monotheists do not ordinarily hate polytheists (except when armed and dangerous). Traditionally, monotheists have regarded pagans as primitive or backward peoples who just don't know any better. But they, the other monotheists and the apostates, do know better, or should.

The historic battles within monotheism are legendary: Hebrews vs. Christians, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Catholics vs. Protestants, Lutherans vs. Calvinists, Church of England vs. dissenters, Puritans vs. Baptists, and so many others. Currently some Islamic extremists have a hard time deciding who they despise more: Is it the evil Christian and Jewish heretics, or is it the evil Muslims heretics? So much heresy, so little time.

For monotheism, it always comes down to heresy, to the rejection of orthodoxy. Starting perhaps with Zoroastrianism, each monotheism itself began as a heresy, instantly generating its own orthodoxy. Heresy -- free thought and choosing to reject the rules -- is the primal offense against the monotheists' conception, and love, of their solitary deity.

The chief authoritarian ideologies of the 20th century were secular and even anti-religious. They are not gone, but they are exhausted. Now, in our global warming, nuclear bomb-loaded world, especially in the United States and the Middle East, we face an older, far more popular and durable ideology: the angry god as mandate and role model.

Like Mark Twain, Bertrand Russell and others before him, Sam Harris insists that the basic premises and literal texts of monotheism are so authoritarian and repressive that people who believe them also easily and frequently support all sorts of other repressive causes. For evidence, see the last 2,000 years of history, or tomorrow's newspaper.

at the crossroads

I’m not a regular to the Ethnic Dance Festival—for years it has had to compete with the school play, the orchestral recital, a birthday celebration or the annual end-of-the-school-year getaway booked 12 months in advance.

But kids grow, the school schedule changes, and now that the children in question are teenagers, the getaway no longer seems as tantalizing as it once did. Life evolves. Cultures do too.

That, at its heart, is the essence and genius of the Ethnic Dance Festival, conceived in 1978 by the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund as the first multicultural, city-sponsored dance festival in the country: culture evolves. The founders may not have had their philosophy entirely sorted at the outset, and in the 80s the Festival sometimes threatened to adopt the milquetoast tone of “It’s A Small World, After All”. But it was only a matter of years before the wisdom of anthropologists and the knowledge of dance preservationists joined with the ethnic pride and physical joy of local community dance troupes to fashion a festival with cultural sophistication as well as down-home fun. Today, it is nearly as much a part of San Francisco’s psyche as Bay to Breakers or Halloween in the Castro

This year I made it to Program 2 (out of three programs) and I was reminded how valuable and often spellbinding the Festival is. If you don’t believe that the Bay Area is both a crossroads and repository for dance traditions from around the globe, glance at the three-week lineup. You’ll quickly know better.

Saturday’s program was a seamlessly executed wave of dance that ran the gamut from the sublime (Hearan Chung) to the dutiful (Kantuta, Ballet Folklorico de Bolivia) to the improbably adept (Barbary Coast Cloggers). Nothing stays long on stage, so if your taste is threatened or you don’t like the sight of nimble beer bellies jiggling above clacking feet, all you need do is take a cat nap and in 10 minutes, max, the next act is up. And if “act” seems like a misplaced term here, it isn’t. The Festival has nurtured a form that straddles vaudeville’s parade of skits and entertainments and the more sober procession of high art. It’s a style that has breathed light-heartedness into the art scene even as it insists on the highest production values.

I won’t catalog the entire gamut from the Festival’s second Saturday. The preponderance of it was good, largely convincing, and when it wasn’t, the dances were nevertheless interesting, and occasionally that was thanks to the very ways in which they fell short.

For instance, I had difficulty with “Oya: The Female Warrior” by the Afro-Cuban Arenas Dance Company but was oddly grateful for the internal conversation it spurred. The movement in the dance is drawn from the mystical Orisha tradition originating in Nigeria and brought to Cuba by African slaves. It’s a dance style that is as demanding as it is sensuous. It ripples and athletically bounds, often at the same time, and requires a sinuous authority to shape the body into both the dancer and the danced. The steps are a means to transformation, not the end point.

To their credit, the troupe gave it their all, and the central dancer in a rainbow-hued skirt danced up a minor dust storm. But they as a group they never captured the mysterious wonder of dance as mystical ritual. Part of it had to do with physical limitations--several performers had tight or unruly shoulders and spines that trapped the action in the upper body. These dancers either under- or over-performed the steps with an almost earnest sense of industry. (As a coping mechanism, this struck me as quintessentially American.)

But more centrally, the question arose: how do American dancers tackle dance that is fundamentally animist? Few among us access nature’s spirit world with any fluency; most among us don’t even believe such a world exists. Can dancers from our culture be taught to embody spirit messengers from the realm of tornados, thunder and lightening? Or are the religious dimensions of the steps doomed? And If the mystical dimension leaks away from the dance, is it still Afro-Cuban dance, or is it truer to call it Afro-Cuban-American dance? So then, if the Orisha soul fades, can American dancers fill those Orisha steps with some new spirit? The ferocity of global warming, perhaps? The anger of distant war?

Call me a degraded purist, but I’m a sucker for the dances at either end of the pole—the happy fifth cousin to the original that has burrowed back into the form from our place of louche secularism and found something holy and hot, or the sublime gem of a still living tradition. The fifth cousin was Hui Tama Nui’s “Nui, The Tree of Life.” The gem was Hearan Chung’s “Shin Kai Deh Shin Mu.”

The young women of Hui Tama Nui, short, tall, rail-thin or undulantly chubby, rotated their hips and ferociously rocked their pelvises back and forth below their coconut-cup bras and raffia skirts with a combined pride in their bodies and in their mastery of movement. They also danced their group line dance with a sensual frankness heartening for any feminist wondering if women really can successfully take back eros from the seedy maw of the porn industry (and soft-porn advertising), and endow it with Dionysian glory. These performers can and did, and the men in the troupe celebrated right alongside them. The women pulled it off with what struck me as a post-post-modern sensibility—they seemed to know they were re-inhabiting Polynesian dance, but they did so without an ounce of vamping, self-consciousness or apology. Their awareness played on their faces, and they cannily revealed that, as young women, they were navigating the difficult shoals of sexuality, power and joy by drawing on ancestral tradition. Not only were they finding their way but they were celebrating en route. Quite an accomplishment in the age of Paris and Brittany.

I first met Chung for an interview in her South Bay apartment some years ago, and although she could only mark her movements that day, her marrow-deep mastery of Korean dance showed in every bend of the knee, lift of the wrist and bow of the head. Her musicality was impeccable, and she decoded some of the mysteries of Korean dance rhythms and the importance of the breath to the movement arc and courtly, 4/4 meter. Not even her jeans and tee shirt or her extreme modesty diminished the impact of her artistry or could hide her standing in Korea as a "holder of important invisible properties". Seeing her on stage some weeks later deepened the impression: Chung is a sublime artist, like gold in a fast stream.

For Program 2 she performed “Shin Kai Deh Shin Mu,” a shamanistic dance that draws on ancient Korean practices and contemporary shamanist, or muist, rites. Historically, shamans in Korea have been women, called mudang, and they are the ones who mediate between realms and assist the dying on their journey into the world of souls. According to the program notes, every aspect of Chung’s solo was rife with symbolism, from her layered white robe, her headdress, the white cloth she unfurled (the path of the soul) to the paper wands with their wavey tresses that represented money to abet the spirit’s passage. When she shook those wands she was keeping the devil at bay.

While few of us in the audience could say precisely what the symbolic import of each element was, Chung plunged us exquisitely and quietly into another realm where the air, the earth and the light seemed filled with gnosis. She flicked her sleeves, threw her hands up then let them descend slowly, eyes cast down, the material and immaterial now magically bound. She conjured, then rested, dashed then pulled herself up. The rising and falling, the fast moves and rests were acts that offered access to another world, like the magic door Ofelia draws and penetrates in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” And even if we didn’t know precisely what that world was or we deny other realms even exist, Chung made us believers in the power of dance to communicate what words alone can’t say.