Thursday, November 13, 2008

Redefining (Black/White) Masculinity

(Letter from Ukie Villain)

Dear Byron Hurt and Tyler Durden,

Thank you for your commentaries on masculinity.

Byron, you compare Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) with Barack Obama, drawing upon the themes that their power and prominence make each of them, in their own way, figures of masculinity in American culture. Recent years have given us the impression that the only strong, virile black men out there were the thugs--the ones who could take the women, the money, the drugs, and the jail-time without flinching. Those who relied on their intellect instead of their muscle were seen as selling out to the 'white' culture. As you say, it's a repainting of post-Civil War painting of the black man as a Buck.

Barack has changed that. By winning against long odds to become the nation's first Black President (assuming all goes well between now and January 20), he has shown that a man can be brainy, calm, and black. He hasn't left his culture, but rather has embraced it, and has still shown that with hands-in-pockets, sleeves-rolled-up, and basketball-shooting-proficiency, he can still command authority, demand respect, and achieve power.

Despite the differences between the Rapper and the President-Elect, there is a commonality here. "These are black men that are playing in a game that was not designed for them; they are playing in a way that has allowed them to be successful against great odds." (Video above, 9:07) Both of these men took what they wanted, but they did so in very different ways. Which is the more masculine of the two, and will Barack's rise to prominence and power lead more young black men to emulate him?

Tyler, you speak to masculinity beyond race, although it seems your message is targeted most directly at white men like me. White men don't have rap stars to provide role models--we have TV sitcoms.

Homer Simpson and Ray RomanoAnd we see all the time that the archetypal man in our society--violent, stupid, and lazy--is not exactly someone worthy of emulation.

Likewise, those who are shown as powerful in business or politics are shown as ultra-consumers: those who have all the money and power they want, and are filling their lives with so much stuff, defining themselves by their Ikea-catalog-lives or their $2000 suits. You seem to believe that neither of these options is acceptable as a true measure of masculinity, although that is what society proposes as the only two options for white men these days.

I'm sad that you had to turn to violence to express your manhood, though I understand the need to violently shake off the expectations of a society that highlights consumerism or slobbery as the path to self-expression of manhood. Ever seen Complex Magazine? It's enough to make me want to hit someone, in any case.

But I find it ironic that at the same time that black men see a role model in Barack that allows them to leave violence and thuggism behind, white men are looking at consumerism, violence, stupidity, and/or laziness as their preferred methods of expressing masculinity. This seems to be going in the wrong direction.

I say that we should define masculinity in a way that neither requires self-definition as a function of what we own or the size of our bank accounts, nor the necessity to take by thuggish force! Rather, masculinity could be defined by work ethic, ability to care and provide for others (even with the knowledge that femininity does NOT require being taken care of or provided for), and genuine expression of self through physicality and emotionality.

In any case, I thank both of you for your thoughts on masculinity, and hope that men in this nation can actually behave as such.


PS. Thanks to NPR for giving the heads up on Byron's short documentary, and spurring my thoughts.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Variation to End All Variations on a Theme by Paganini

Dear Sergei,

I have been spending quite a bit of my travel time these last few days reviewing your music. Did I ever tell you that I have a very long commute to work? Sigh, yes, but my car has a nice sound system. I say reviewing, because I have been a long time fan. My earliest forays into classical music were in the shadows of your moving concertos. I travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, each day. (That is where you performed your final concert isn't it.)

But it has not been your concertos that have enamored me of late, but that glorious rhapsody on the ever enduring theme of Paganini. Why was that simple theme such an inspiration to so many. It is hard to say?

Did you know that YouTube provides renditions of you, Sergei, playing the whole of this work in three sections?
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I guess that somehow this theme carries with it a spirit of the quintessential life flow that moves us through our various existences. It has inspired composers and in that, it has inspired all of us to life. You, of course, do not fail to remind us in places throughout your set of variations of the ever-present threat of death. A number of times I heard that fixed idea, the one you tap into throughout your many works, the dias irae theme. (I do not forget that. It is always a sub-theme isn't it. You Russians never let us forget. Remember that stirring work by Shostakovich, the 14th, that used the poetry of, among others, Rilke?
All-powerful is death.
It keeps watch
even in the hour of happiness.
At moments of higher life it suffers within us,
awaits us and thirsts for us -
and weeps within us.
No, we can't forget. It weeps within us, even during your variations on the theme by Paganini, that points us to the best of life.) And so you whisper reminders in variations 7 and 10 and, at the end. But death, though ever-present in life is not what it's about. It is just there, isn't it? And it's there with all the failures (variation 12?) and successes (variation 14?).

But it is life, full life, that continues through your rhapsodic variations on Paganini's lively theme. And what is life without love? Death is not the main sub-theme of life, but love certainly is. It must be. And you, my romantic friend, are the best one to state it fully in variation 18, and in D minor (like your most beautiful concerto and as Patrick Piggott* says--"in the key of sunset and romance").

In variation 16 you take us into a melody so delicately alluring that our tightening throats and not just our ears tell us it can be leading only one place, to the dearest recesses of the heart. So variation 16 with interwoven phrases for oboe, horn, harp, is harbinger of the wonder of love and intercourse. I enjoy the way you use this figure, here in the original A minor, shift it to B flat minor in 16, and then through variation 17 modulate to the erotic variation 18. (Listen to Part 2 above from 2:24 to the end.)

When I first listened to this rhapsody, I found variation 18 to be somewhat of a jolt. Too much, I thought. Out of character with the rest of the piece. But as I listened more, and especially in relation to the seduction of 16, I realized that the orgasmic strains were a deliberate expression of the richest of intercourse between the orchestra and piano. The beauty of description rivals that of the overture to Tristan and Isolde and it's conclusion leaves the chords that enveloped the notes of the Paganini motif inverted and panting on the staff.

I love this interpretation of the 18th variation done by Artur Rubenstein. He was a wonderful interpretor of your work, wasn't he?

So, I think of all the composers who have played with this group of notes first uttered by Paganini, it is you who have brought it to it's most full expression.

Thank you for these beauties.


*Rachmaninov Orchestral Music by Patrick Piggott (BBC Music Guides) 1974

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Variation on a Variation by Benny Goodman

Dear Benny Goodman,

So you liked this caprice by Paganini also! It is so interesting and appropriate to the jazz takeoff, because jazz is about life, gutsy life, and this piece as far as I can think is about life, a high-pitched, rough and tumble, well experienced life. That is the conclusion I'm coming to as I listen to the tune and to the variations that it has inspired.

I like your interpretation, but even moreso, and I think you, too, would be delighted, I like this snappy encore, a variation on your variation performed by Gregor Pierce.


Friday, November 07, 2008

The Tune That Drove Composers Wild

Dear Niccolo Paganini,

You certainly did it with this one. As a young girl said to me yesterday, "That is smokin' hot!" I won't try here to explain wikipedia, but it lists 30 compositions written by the likes of Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and even Andrew Webber and Benny Goodman, just based on this Caprice.

Listen to Jascha Heifetz. Don't he make you proud?

Fred Flaxman, who does a public radio show, Compact Discoveries said, "These capricci, which explore virtually every aspect of violin technique, are still the supreme test of the abilities of any violinist." He's the one who said that this Caprice drove the composers wild!

If you, yourself, played like this, that guy who said your virtuosity was, "enough to make the greater part of the fiddling tribe commit suicide," was probably right.

So here is my question? (Consider this a survey question.) What is it about this tune that has brought so much musical light into this world? I'm thinking about that.

Bless you.


Monday, November 03, 2008

Post Election Perspective

CaDh8 and I (BRD) have just about burned out on election commentary. Luckily, just in time, TheUkieVillain, straight from the Ukrainian Village section of Chicago has stepped up to wrap up our issue debates. As we curl up to watch election returns, we are glad to hear some good reminders about the realities of the situation.

Hopefully, we will all move forward from this election with a renewed spirit of vision and willingness to appreciate the talents and value of the winning candidate.

Welcome to Letters-and-Surveys, UkieVillain!

Dear Self, Post-Election Day,

I hope you get some sleep Election Night, and don't stay up too late to watch the election results trickle in.

I'm writing to remind you of a few things from this side of election day, when hopes run high on all sides: the hope of change with one candidate, or the still-clinging-to-hope of the other.

Reminder 1: Whatever the outcome, God is still in control. We have just voted to elect the President. As my pastor said this week, Jesus is still Lord and Messiah, whoever may be on the throne at the head of our country. God will still be in control of the nation, of the economy, of the war, of the unborn, of the world. He can still change hearts and minds regarding policy. And HE is the one who raises kings up and deposes them.

Reminder 2: If the guy you want to win ends up losing, it does not imply fraud. While the voting process itself is increasingly under scrutiny, what with hanging chads, and e-voting mishaps, the voice of the people is still the voice of the people. Our representative democracy is still based on the concept that our representatives are elected each year. So go out, vote, and resign yourself to the results, for better or worse. I'm all for honesty and transparency, but given the system we've got, my opinion is that it'd be better to get the next guy in office instead of drawing out election night for 30+ days the way we did in 2000. That just leads to further resentment and rancor among the people.

Reminder 3: Your influence in government didn't end when you left the voting booth Yes, that's right! Despite what you may think, your representatives DO care what you have to say. Call the offices of your Representative and/or Senator and/or the President, both on the state (I guess they're called governors on the state level, huh?) and federal level (they treat that as representative of 10 of their constituents). Better yet, take the time to write a pen-and-paper letter expressing your opinions (that gets counted as 50 people!).

Or, if you think the government is bunk and can't get the job done, work on getting things better without them! Join a community group that supports actions in your neighborhood, city, or state. Join up with a cause that you believe in. Volunteer at a soup kitchen.

And, don't limit yourself to talking about politics and important issues on your blog (guilty of this myself) or with close friends and relatives. Blogs are likely to be read only by people who already agree with you, and its likely that you will hold similar opinions as many of your friends and family (although that's not always the case).

By encouraging reasonable discourse in the public square, you're helping bring back civility to our political realm, and helping understand those who are different than you, which is the start of changing yourself and the world.

Reminder 4: Read and remember! Make yourself more knowledgeable about the things you care about. That way, the next time you vote (local elections in 12 months, congressional elections in 2 years, presidential campaigns start in 3…hours?), you'll have the knowledge to back up and defend your positions and influence those around you with the truth.

So, Self, remember these things, and don't despair about whatever happens in this election or the seeming futility of politics sometimes!

Remember these things!



Saturday, November 01, 2008

Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation

Dear Garimpeiros*,

I recently watched the movie Powaqqatsi, part 2 of a trilogy of film collaborations by Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass. Though not as powerful as part 1, Koyaanisqatsi, it was, nonetheless, a beautiful and intriguing piece--particularly to you garimpeiros, I would think.

One of the images that recurs throughout the film Powaqqatsi is that of humans carrying burdens and carrying them, particularly, on or with their heads. And that is how we see you in the beginning sequence of the film. That scene is undoubtedly the most moving of the entire production. There you are in Serra Pelada**, sometime before the 1990's when this ant hill of production closed down, 40,000 of you, struggling up from the depths of a great pit under great burdens of rock and mud.

Godfrey Reggio recounts that the filming in the mine was taking place as planned, when a man was accidentally hit on the head with a rock. The camera person asked if he should stop filming and help. Reggio maintained that their efforts to help would be unwanted and so they filmed instead. The image of two garimpeiros carrying another up the rough trail impresses the viewer as a video version of the Pieta. Pity him. Pity them. Pity us all for the burdens we must carry.

This piece of video art, Reggio says, is an attempt to use the medium to question the medium. I'm not totally sure what he means. Supposedly he traveled broadly across the southern hemisphere to capture images from life that show the effect of industry and technology on the world. I would have to say that the work doesn't hold together in the same way that Koyaanisqatsi did, but it is beautiful and the music of Philip Glass is, as always, wonderful (if you love Glass) or repetitive to the point of a scream (if you don't).

"The computer is the highest magic in the world and something that we are all in adoration of. And that's what these films are about," Godrey says. But the word powaqqatsi is from the Hopi language and means "sorcerer life" or an entity or way of life that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life. The context of the film is this technological order. It studies the impact of progress. There is the implication in the film that technology is eating up the native cultures of the world, but that implication doesn't imply violence as much as complicity of these cultures. Powaqqi may be a black magician, but if he/she is, it operates through allurement. If the Southern world is being subsumed by progress, it is submitting willingly.

The language of the music is consonant with the language of the film. Apparently Glass followed Reggio around the southern hemisphere, but didn't always travel with him. He visited some of the same places. His hope was to explore the universe of this discourse, where the great conundrum of our age is the most immediately puzzling. "We are," they say, "already cooking in the stew of this technological age." This is the great burden that we are carrying around on our heads.

One of my favorite scenes of the film is one captured by the camera playing games with the depth of field. A woman walks, impressively carrying on her head a basket, while what appears to be a modern group of marathon runners stride up upon her slowly. The effect is breathtaking.

Powaqqatsi displays for us this great burden, embodied by those, like you, who still walk with bared feet in the mud and through the dust.

I read that Colossus Minerals of Toronto is now developing plans along with a group of garimpeiros represented by Coomigasp to core drill for gold at Serra Pelada. Pity.


*Brazilian Gold Searchers
**Serra Pelada - Very Famous Gold Open Pit Mine in the west of Brazil