The Casual Blog

Tag: Claude Debussy

Some good soul, and talking about race

This past week we went out to see a movie for the first time since BC (Before Covid).  Sally had read about a new documentary, Summer of Soul, playing at the Rialto, our old time neighborhood movie house.  There was only one guy there selling tickets, and he also sold drinks and snacks, so it took longer than usual time to get a ticket, popcorn, and a beer.  

But it was so worth it!  Summer of Soul is about a concert series in the summer of 1969 in a park in Harlem with  mostly Black musicians and hundreds of thousands of Black people listening, singing, and dancing.  

The musicians included already famous and future legendary performers, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Nina Simone, David Ruffin, Max Roach, Ray Baretto,  Mahalia Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.  That is, some of the very best gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and rock ever made.  The musicians seemed to feel the love, and their performances showed it.

It was amazing that it ever happened, and unfortunate that it never became a cultural touchstone, like Woodstock, which happened the same summer.  Fortunately, the producers saved the videotapes, and now, 52 years later, we can get a good look at what we missed.  It may be just the right moment to discover and cherish this wonderful moment of Black culture.  The film is streaming on Hulu.

As you probably already know, race is multi-dimensional issue in the United States, which we haven’t fully worked through.  One indicator of this is the odd new moral panic about the teaching of critical race theory.  I learned last week that parents in Loudoun County, Va. and other places are harassing and threatening school board members because they believe their young children are being taught this specialized CRT scholarship.  

This notion, promoted by fearmongering rabble rousers at Fox News, is almost certainly untrue. But it’s concerning that these parents, who presumably love their children, seem really worried.   They apparently think their children may learn some really bad lessons — ones that run contrary to our traditional narrative of progress and harmony.  

It isn’t surprising that being clear and direct about race makes some white people uncomfortable.  For one thing, it isn’t how we were taught.  For another, it may involve unpleasant feelings, like regret, shame, and guilt.  For some, there could be a feeling that their position in the hierarchy is indefensible and threatened.  And it isn’t surprising that some react to this discomfort defensively, converting it into anger and denial.  

But I still find it remarkable that those who want avoid the issue attack those who would like to address our racial history and problems as racists.  

Anyhow, for those who aren’t full of that sort of fear and anger, I recommend a recent podcast series from RadioLab:  The Vanishing of Harry Pace.  It tells what is known of Pace, a highly accomplished businessman who wrote popular songs, started Black Swan records, led a Black insurance company, and then seemed to change his racial identification.  

Part of what’s fascinating is how race can seem firmly fixed, and turn out to be highly ambiguous.  Similarly, history that we assume must be well settled can turn out to be full of uncertainty. 

Along this same line, remember the Alamo?  The way I heard the story as a kid, it was a heroic battle for freedom in Texas.  This was not true, according to Forget the Alamo:  The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford.  In an interview on Fresh Air, Burrough explained that the battle was part of a struggle mainly about preserving and expanding slavery by white settlers in what was then part of Mexico, where slavery was generally illegal.  

The supposed idealism and heroism were Hollywood creations.  Burrough noted in the interview that contradicting the traditional accounts of the heroism of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, etc. made some people, including militia types, extremely upset.    

Getting back to music, I’ve been reading a biography of Claude Debussy by Stephen Walsh.  As is usually or always true with music writing, it doesn’t succeed in conveying anything close to the actual music, but it does suggest perspectives for listening.  Debussy’s music, some of which I’m capable of playing on the piano, was highly original, but he also acknowledged being inspired by music from other cultures, including the Javanese gamelan tradition of Indonesia.

Inspired by Walsh’s account, I decided to track down some gamelan music, and found plenty on YouTube.  The examples I heard didn’t sound at all like they could be Debussy’s model, and I’m inclined to think he drew more from traditional Japanese music.  But with YouTube it was surprisingly fun to dip into Javanese and Japanese music.   It inspired me to start exploring other traditional world music through there — from eastern Europe, native Americans, west Africans.  There’s a ton!  

These photos are from Jordan Lake this week.  There weren’t a lot of birds there, and those I saw didn’t perform any spectacular feats, like catching a fish.  But I liked this osprey.

A lovely Friday cocktail, Bill Cunningham, the anti-gay vote, David Brooks’s The Social Animal, learning to listen while playing the piano

How nice it is to have a cocktail and relax at home on Friday evening! Of course, strong drink must be handled with care. A glass of wine with dinner is certainly a pleasure, but the habit can sneak up on you, and a glass of wine can so easily turn into three.

A few weeks back, Sally and I decided to limit drinking to weekends. Among other good effects, this makes the Friday evening drink particularly delightful. Last night, Sally made us margaritas with fresh lime. For the first time in years, I had a sudden urge to listen to Stevie Wonder hits from the seventies, which we now can easily stream from Rhapsody. I dedicated my streaming of the wonderful Signed, Sealed, Delivered to my sweet Sally.

We watched a documentary called Bill Cunningham New York. Cunningham is a photographer whose specialty is candid shots of New Yorkers wearing interesting clothes. He has a feature in the Sunday NY Times style section in which he shows this week’s street fashion trend, which, although I’m far from a fashion person, I always enjoy looking at. But I didn’t know him by name, and would have missed the documentary but for Sally’s putting it at the top of the Netflix queue.

It was sweet and kind of inspiring. Cunningham is in his mid-80s. He’s still snapping pictures all the time (using 35 mm film), publishing weekly in the Times, and travelling by bicycle on the streets of Manhattan. Age may have slowed him down a bit, but he’s still passionately creative. He’s got a great, boyish smile.

We voted in the North Carolina primary this week, which involved primary races for governor, secretary of agriculture, and various other offices, and an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Why a gay marriage ban? It’s mysterious, and bizarre. I am stunned that it passed by a 20-point margin. Raleigh, the part of North Carolina in which I spend most days is multi-cultural and tolerant, with a visible and completely uncontroversial gay population. (I blogged about this visibility a while ago.) But most of the state is rural. What is going on in the heads of homophobes? I’d like to understand, but I don’t get it. It’s a different culture. I believe that that culture is eventually going to change, but for now it’s still alive and kicking.

Speaking of culture, I’ve been reading The Social Animal, by David Brooks, the NY Times conservative columnist. Brooks has collected recent ideas on psychology and culture, including those of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, and woven them into a readable and, in places, intriguing book. The theme, which is getting considerable attention lately, is that people are primarily driven by unconscious perceptions and desires, rather than rational thought.

But Brooks views this in a positive light, arguing that although our brains make all kinds of mistakes, they work better than a completely rational system running in real time could. He argues that behavior is best viewed as a function of those around us and our surrounding environments rather than of individual intelligence, and proposes that we think about meaning more in terms of relationships and cultural systems. I don’t much like his device of two imaginary characters who gradually discover or rub up against the various theories he explores; the characters never really come to life. But I think it’s worthwhile — I’m more than half way through, and likely to finish.

On Saturday I had my last piano lesson of the season with Olga Kleiankana, who’s headed to Moldova for the summer. We talked about some Rachmaninoff and Scriabin pieces for me to work on over the summer, and then worked on Scriabin’s second prelude (op. 11). Olga admitted that it sounded significantly better, but pointed out places where the tone seemed flat. She continued to emphasize the importance of gesture in sound production and expression, and when pedaling problems emerged she taught me how to test out pedaling improvements.

Then I played Debussy’s Second Arabesque for her for the first time. She pointed out that I seemed to be reading note by note, when many of the elements were repeated with slight variations. As she went through a quick score analysis, I had a eureka moment: score analysis was not designed to torture hapless students, but rather to make it possible to understand and learn music more quickly and effectively.

Finally I played Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, from Images, premiere serie. This is a gorgeous impressionist piece that calls to mind (especially after hearing the title) reflections in water. It has dazzling effects, some of which are difficult. Olga noticed that I got tense in my shoulders in the fast 32nd-note passages, and advised me that that could be fixed by breaking the passages into simple parts for practice. We also talked about the relationship of touch and tone color. At one point, I played a simple chord, and she said, with a pained expression, “Don’t just play the notes! You need to always think before you touch the keys!”

And she was serious. She listens with a level of concentration that’s almost scary, and expects me to at least try to do the same. I’m having occasional glimmerings of what this might be like. The sound seems richer, with more depth and detail. It’s like hearing in 3D. Of course, little flaws, like unbalanced chords or inappropriate accents, are more jarring. But when a musical statement works, it touches more deeply.