A Classical Education Part 1: Vivaldi

I am the kind of person who likes to know things. Some consider intellectualism  a sin of the elite, and in some past eras that may have even been true, but with the internet at our finger tips, providing the sum total of human knowledge virtually free of charge to any with a hungry mind, there is no longer and financial or social class barrier keeping any of us from whatever knowledge we crave. That’s an amazing thing, if you ask me, and even if you don’t.

So I recently decided that I have been a plebian for too long when it comes to classical music. I probably recognize the same basic melodies that the average joe does from popular culture and old Warner Brothers cartoons. I am almost ashamed to admit that I know the names of only a few of the great composures, and just as few of their works.

So, with nothing but a basic layman’s understanding of classical music, I thought I would try and express my autodidactic self and learn a thing or to, documenting it as I went.

Firstly, I was surprised to find that not all classical music is old, in fact classical music is composed to this day, which prompted the natural question; What exactly IS classical music?

I suppose there are many answers to that question, but one which seemed most compelling o me was the following: Classical music is not defined by HOW the music is written, but rather WHY it is written. Popular music is written first and foremost to entertain the listener. Classical music, on the other hand, is more like painting a picture with notes rather than pigment. Classical music seeks to evoke a mood or scene or image, which may be entertaining, but may also be unpleasant, or scary, or discordant, or intimidating, or ornate. Classical music, much like painting, sometimes simply seeks to press the boundaries of the medium in ways that can only truly be appreciated by other practitioners.

Armed with this definition I turned to a listing of composers for the earliest the Classical Period, Baroque, and for no particular reason I started with Vivaldi, listening to his best known work, The Four Seasons, in its entirety.

What I knew before today: Vivaldi was an Italian composer who, in the pantheon Classical Musicians, was one of the earlier ones.

What I know now:  The name of The Four Seasons in Italian is Le Quattro Stagioni, which is beautiful to say and I will start calling it that from now on.

Vocabulary-

Baroque: The Baroque Period which was an ornamental and extravagant style of architecture, literature, and music that defined the Upper Crust of Europe from the mid 1600s to the mid 1700s, making up the earliest era of what we typically think of as Classical Music.

Concerto: A musical piece in which one primary instrument serves as the main voice and is backed up by an orchestra.

Now on to my thoughts of the music:

The Four Season is a 12 part work with three distinct songs (or movements as they are known in the vernacular) for each season. Each season opens with a powerful piece, has a soft and slow piece in the middle, and finishes strong. That said, the second movements are fairly forgettable and, to my ears, are little more than pleasant noise, the exception being the second movement of Winter.

Vivaldi did a great job of describing the seasons musically. Spring is full of bright jumping joyous notes, and it also easily the most recognizable of the four. Anyone raised in the West will instantly recognize the opening notes of Spring’s firs movement. Summer is probably my least favorite of the four, long and without joy, the only highlight being the Thunderstorm in the third movement. I think Autumn is my favorite of the Seasons evoking falling leaves, the industrious toil of the Harvest Season, and the Harvest feasts of the season. My chief criticism of Autumn would be its monotonous middle act, which stretches on for what feels like a featureless eternity.  However, that may be exactly the point if Vivaldi is indeed describing the dead and leafless forests of late autumn. Lastly comes Winter, which has a bright and energetic opening movement, followed by a warm and comfortable middle movement, and a bleak third movement.

The whole thing takes about 40 minutes to listen to, and while I think only a few of the movements will make it into my “casual listening” library, it is certainly worth listening to the whole thing as a case study in describing something with the language of notes, and if felt like an accessible piece for  classical neophyte.

The Four Seasons

For Fun- A mash up of Let it Go and the first movement of Winter

Jesus and the Magic Soup Stone: Credit Denied Where Credit is Due

In a recent episode of David Smalley’s excellent podcast Dogma Debate (give it a listen sometime, you won’t be disappointed) a female pastor, Sharon Bollum, was invited on to discuss numerous issues of faith and doctrine. The discussion mostly focused on how a Female Pastor squares her faith with the numerous overtly sexist Biblical teachings, which was fascinating to hear, but one part of their exchange in particular jumped out at me in a dramatic fashion.

“I have gone through some really terrible things in my life David,” Sharon said, “Some awful things, and Jesus helped me through those things, helped my overcome those gigantic obstacles and move on to a better place in my life.”

“You know what I think,” David replied, “I think that YOU pulled yourself through those tough times. I think that you overcame those terrible circumstances on your own and you aren’t giving yourself credit for your own strength. Instead you are giving that credit to Jesus.”

I have written on the phenomena before, but it really brought those old frustrations back to the surface to encounter such a dramatic example laid bare on the Podcast. Sharon had difficultly responding to that challenge, and it was almost palpable that she had never before considered that maybe the strength she attributed to Jesus was really just an externalization of her own power.

I have encountered similar stomach-churning statements made by my own family. My Mother, who I have referenced on this Blog from time to time, is one of the strongest people I have ever personally encountered. She has endured sorrow, insecurity, and tribulation that would break me, all while ageing easily into the comfortable disposition of a kindly Grandmother. Yet I hear from her that it is Jesus who gets her through the hard times, and it is through her faith in God that she has endured.

Personal willpower and emotional fortitude are difficult things to gauge. You can’t exactly place them on a scale or measure their cost in caloric expenditure. However to see people like my Mother, and like Sharon from the Dogma Debate, performing incredible feats of emotional and mental strength, only to credit that strength to God, is to see them belittling themselves for the glory of another, and it pains me.

This is one aspect, not of Religion in general but of Christianity in particular, which I find personally unsettling. Christianity actively cultivates a kind of vain meekness. The Christian is humble, and sinful, and dirty, and worthy of nothing more than the Hell their incurable condition condemns them to. However, fortunately for those meek and humble Christians, they are each of every one of personal and intimate interest to the Creator. This Creator not only loves them uniquely, but is willing to set the otherwise binding rules of Sin and Justice aside to make an exception in their case, provided of course the love him properly in return.

What kind of bizarre cognitive dissonance must it cause to simultaneously entertain those two ideas? I suppose it would be the kind of cognitive dissonance which compels to blame your own filthy self for everything you’ve ever done wrong, while giving credit to God for all of the things you’ve done right. I can hardly imagine the kind of havoc in must wreak on a person’s Psyche to externalize all of their good traits and internalize all of their bad ones.

You do not only see this happening on the personal level, you see it happening at all resolutions of faith, however you choose to focus. If a church is mismanaged or falls on tough times and must close, then human weakness and human influences will be blamed. If a Church experiences amazing attendance, fantastic growth, and numerous successes in the community, then credit is given to God’s presence in the congregation. After a championship victory, the MVP or Head Coach of the winning team will almost invariably credit God for their victory. How often does the losing team blame God for their loss? When an entire world-spanning Religion, like the Catholic Church, is rocked by controversy and corruption, then fallible Man is to blame, yet when that same Church is praised for its humanitarian outreach then of course the Church is but a humble servant of God’s will. Perhaps Muhammad put it best when he wrote; Alhamdulilah (All Praise Belongs to Allah).

Yet it should be obvious that these goings on, both good and bad, are simply the natural result of shifting human behavior. God, for all of his incredible power, doesn’t seem to perform any better on average than typical humans. Do Christian players actually perform better in sports? Do Christian business owners actually weather recessions better? Are Christian institutions actually less prone to scandal and corruption? The answer seems to be no across the board. Religion does not actually, statistically, confer any advantage in these matters, but people are still eager to pretend that Christ has something to do with it.

Essential, Jesus is a Holy Soup Stone.

Some of you may be familiar with the parable of the Soup Stone, and it is a wonderful little story, which I will summarize here for those unfamiliar:

A Stranger wanders into town one day looking for something delicious to eat. Nobody has anything particularly rich or hearty or tasty and the man is turned away disappointed. So he sets up a large boiling pot in the center of town and pulls a smooth brown stone from his pack, tossing it into the water. A curious villager asks him what he is doing, and he replies that he is making Stone Soup.

“It’s really delicious,” the Stranger says, “you boil the stone for 5 hours and it makes the most amazing soup you’ve ever tasted. The Stone is magic you see.”

Intrigued the Villager says, “That sounds wonderful. I see that this is a very large pot and you are but one man, so can I have some of the soup when it is done?”

The Stranger says, “Certainly, but could you do one small thing? Stone Soup is wonderful, but just a little bit of salt really makes it pop. Can you get some salt to add?”

The excited Villager runs off to find some salt to add to the pot.

A second Villager arrives and the conversation goes much the same, except this time the Stranger insists that just a few sweet carrots would perfectly accent the savory flavor Stone Soup, and the Villager eagerly agrees to add some of his carrots. More and more Villagers show up, intrigued by the stories they are hearing of this amazing Stone Soup cooking in the square. The Stranger keeps mentioning small changes or little contributions of ingredients that would make the Soup better, which the Villagers happily agree to donate. Eventually the smell of the soup wafts through the streets and people flock to the scene, all being told this amazing soup bubbling away in the pot was created by doing little more than boiling a special magic stone for 5 hours. The Soup is at last served and everyone is amazed at how delicious Stone Soup turns out to be. When the pot is at last empty, and everyone in town retires to their beds with full stomachs, the Stranger retrieves his stone from the bottom of the pot and leaves town. For years people in the village would remark on the miracle of how a stranger produced the best Soup they’d ever had merely by boiling a magic stone.

Jesus is to Christians just exactly what the Soup Stone was to the Villagers. The Town had all of the ingredients to make delicious Soup in the first place, but they had to be tricked into properly utilizing their resources, they had to be fooled into expressing the strength they had all along. Sure every villager knew that they themselves had contributed some small mundane portion of the Soup, but none of them realized that there was nothing to the miraculous Soup beyond their accumulated non-miraculous contributions. Similarly a Christian undergoing a crisis known that each individual act of courage, discipline, wisdom, and fortitude they conducted was performed by them as an individual. They understand that Jesus did not bodily descended and stand up to their abusive spouse for them, or grab their hand and forced them to put down the syringe, or inhabit their car and force them to drive away from a crime they were on the precipice of committing. They are fully aware the each constituent part of their success was a real act preformed by them under their own volition, but the sum total of those willful ordinary acts is accredited to Jesus. Jesus is the Soup Stone, and the Christian, just like the Villagers in the story, doesn’t have the perspective to realize that the exact same Soup could have been made all along, and the Stone was merely a rouse.

It hurts my heart to see people devalue themselves in this way. Even if God did exist, and the Christian narratives were true, the knee-jerk tendency to give God credit for your own fortitude would strike me as a sickly instinct. The fact that no such God exists makes it an even greater transgression against decency. I say we are much better off accepting and celebrating ourselves as humans, embracing all of the weakness, but also all of the terrific and soaring strengths that deplorable condition entails.

Sexual Flexibility: Born No Particular Way

There was a time, when I was a much younger man, that I was repulsed by Homosexuality and stood opposed to gay marriage. I am often thankful that I did not blog or record YouTube videos at the time, because reviewing that material now would, I am sure, make me cringe. I recall, almost as if remembering the actions of another person, talking about how homosexuality was unnatural, not reproductively viable, and little more than an unwarranted social imposition by trendy kids seeking attention.

 

Yes, I am fully aware of how wrong I was.

 

Anyone who tells you that debating world views is pointless, because nobody changes their mind, is simply mistaken. I evolved, I changed my mind, and I now consider myself a rather vociferous ally of the LGBT(Q) community. Sound argumentation had a lot to do with that. However the major change in my thinking occurred when I moved to a larger city and simply got to know several gay people. The more you come to know and like someone, the harder it becomes to demonize them, and that is probably THE hallmark lesson I learned in my early twenties. However one of the disturbing implications of that experience was the realization that I (statistically speaking) must have known plenty of gay people all along, but simply lived in an environment where they felt unable to share that information.

 

So, I have come to agree passionately that treating someone abhorrently, or even just relatively badly, because they enjoy themselves in ways you would not, is a bizarre non-sequitur and a terrible justification for such behavior. Furthermore I do generally agree that an inexplicably overwrought or violent disapproval of an act is the external projection of internal shame, a way to self-flagellate by proxy. Shakespeare made this point eloquently when King Lear chastised Gloucester; “Why are you whipping that whore?” Lear says to the Officer, “You should be whipping yourself, since you lust after her and yearn to do the same thing for which you’re punishing her.”

 

But despite my allegiance to the cause of alternate sexualities, there is still one argument I hear presented by the Gay Rights community that bothered me back when I stood on the other side of the fence, and it still bothers me to this day. I disapprove of the mantra; “People don’t choose to be Gay. They are born that way.”

 

I don’t buy it….with a few expectations. I understand the importance of the slogan, and the message it carries; Some people, just by their nature, fancy their own gender, and there is nothing wrong or defective about that. I understand the importance of the message that you can no more force a gay person to live strait than a strait person to live gay, and pressing the issue can result in serious emotional damage.

 

I understand all of that, but what I reject is how binary and absolute the statement is.

 

The debate over the existence of a definite biological case for homosexuality has been ongoing for some time. In recent years interesting studies have focused more on the hormonal soup of the mother’s womb, and how the number of prior male children may affect that chemical cocktail. These studies have produced loads of utterly fascinating and also utterly inconclusive data, and the research into the source of homosexuality remains stuck in the arena of Nature vs Nurture, from which is may never escape. However, in the opinion of this writer, Nature AND Nurture operate beautifully together and render a far less complicated answer: Everyone is a little gay.

 

Now there is more nuance to it than that, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to use such a punchy line. In my experience, and in concordance with a wealth of research on human sexual practices around the world and across the ages, it seems that human sexuality is far more fluid, situational, and dynamic than a binary attribute set at birth. Many people, especially when they are young, go through phases of experimental sexuality before settling into one orientation or the other. Many people live a content and happy life as a strait person for many years only to discover in mid life that they are attracted to their own gender. A huge number of people pursue strait sexual interests 90% of the time, but indulge in homosexual porn or may take a same-gendered lover, an orientation that I have seen labeled with the delightful term Heteroflexible. And of course there are Bisexual people who expend their sexual efforts to large degrees towards both genders. These are not people consumed by denial or guilt, forced to hide their light under a bushel. These are people pursuing the sex life that appeals to them, fickle though it may be.

 

In addition to my annoyance that “Born that way” rhetoric tends to endorse a fairly binary view of sexuality, I also dislike the concept that sexuality is determined at birth or is somehow inflexibly assigned by biology. As I conceded earlier, fetal development, genetics, and hormonal exposures do influence a person’s sexuality, to varying degrees, but I think it would be foolish to deny that sexuality also develops as it emerges, particularly during puberty, although sometimes later in life.

 

I myself (sorry Mom) had a few gay experiences as a young lad when I was a boy scout. When a group of hormonal boys are left in tents to talk about girls and these weird erection things that have started to occur with alarming regularity, sex play is bound to occur. I have never shared that information prior to this writing, partially because I grew up with this strange ingrained idea that having even a single gay encounter, which was both voluntary and pleasurable, in an otherwise strait life branded you as Gay. In fact I had some alarming and very influential conversations in my late teens with Gay Rights activists who informed me that a person who had a Gay encounter they enjoyed was in fact Gay, and any attempt to claim that they preferred girls more, or that the Gay experiences had been isolated experiments, was just a manifestation of shame and a clear sign of a closet case.

 

It was all very confusing and alarming. Of course I wasn’t lying; I had grown up very much fancying girls, despite my first few sexual encounters being with other boys. However the unflinchingly rigid sexual silos I encountered on both sides of the divide made me uncomfortable expressing how fluid my early sexuality has actually been. Since I did, in fact, prefer girls, I merely adopted the silo that best matched me and ignored the fact that I wasn’t a perfect fit. I was too afraid of compromising my self-identification as strait to express what seemed to be obviously true; that my early sexuality was not set in stone, but rather it had developed as it emerged. While I have grown into a relatively boring strait guy, I have little doubt that had I been seized by a strong crush on a fellow boy at some early pubescent stage, it is entirely possible I could have grown to identify as gay.

 

Furthermore I cannot help but wonder just what percent of the population had their first sexual experience with someone of the same gender? I suspect that number is far higher than we intuitively assume. However the tendency to discuss sexuality only as a binary trait probably makes admitting, let alone discussing, that fact uncomfortable for many people who fear, as I did, compromising the orientation they’ve come to identify with. Now I acknowledge that there are LGBT(Q) communities that fully embrace the diverse and scatter-shot nature of human sexuality, but in the large scale political and social discourse in this country, the social battle over progressive sexuality is very much cast as Gay vs Strait, and it is in that context that the battle cry “Born that way” is most often heard.

 

But aren’t some people actually born that way? Is it not true that people can’t really choose their sexuality? Well I am going to say, frustratingly I’m sure, that the answer is both yes and no. I will acknowledge that some percent of the population, let’s say 10% (very informal number, work with me here), are completely gay, attracted to only the opposite gender. Likewise I would say that only a small percentage of the population are exclusively attracted to the opposite gender. I believe that probably about 80% of the population exists along the gently sloping bell curve of the notorious Kinsey Scale, perhaps tending towards one end or the other but more or less fluttering in the winds of culture and circumstance. I think I can make a few quick historical demonstrations of this fact that few could disagree with.

 

The Spartans were notoriously gay. Virtually every man in their cultural engaged predominantly in homosexual sex. Now of course they had wives, but for a majority of a Spartan’s adult life wives were a secondary sexual outlet, sometimes spoken of almost as a duty that must be tended to for the sake of procreation. The day to day sex lives of Spartan men played out almost exclusively among other Spartan men. Now are we to assume that something about being born on the Laconic Plains in the far south of Greece predisposition men towards homosexuality, that something about the genetics of the Spartans lineage ratcheted the rate of innate homosexuality up from about 10% to almost 100%? Of course not. What about the Pirates and Privateers sailing the seas in the 17th century, known for their rather robust and hierarchal gay culture. Is there something about bobbing on the ocean for 6 months that causes mass homosexuality to set in, a condition that evaporates rather quickly when back at port with lots of money to spend? Again the answer is; of course not. There was nothing different about the average biological make-up of these men than those of any other population, the different was their culture and circumstance. (I apologize that I can’t come up with good examples of female sexual institutions, but history does not furnish us with many)

 

It seems reasonable to observe that, for the most part, human beings simply like sex, and we tend to seek it out in the most acceptable form given our setting. I suppose you could say that we possess a wonderful capacity to love under diverse conditions. No doubt some Spartans actually enjoyed sex with their wives more than with their fellow soldiers, and no doubt some of those Pirates on shore leave, given the option to entertain women for a few weeks, still chose to entertain men. In the end, most of us probably fancy both genders to some degree, and if stuck in a mono-gender environment for an extended period would begin to develop homosexual relationships unless some strict rule or taboo stood in the way. But what is normal natural human behavior in a gender mixed environment?

 

That is a complicated question since it is so hard to separate cultural pressure from natural behavior, and even more difficult when you consider that culture is part of the nature of humans and maybe shouldn’t be separated at all. However, humans are not the only animals that engage in social and/or recreational sex. Hyenas, Dolphins, Goats, and Bonobo Chimps all have well documented recreational sex practices, and among each one of these species, regular Bisexuality is observed. In fact bisexuality is observed in a stupendous number of animals and seems to have a strong correlation with how social the species is, showing sex to be not only a procreative act but also a communicative act in many cases. These behaviors may grant some insight into the natural sexuality of humans if they could in inoculated against social pressures. Perhaps humans are innately bisexual, as with many socially sexual species, and it is being gender exclusive, in either direction, that is the oddity.

 

This is a difficult theory to test, since sex has been tied to inheritance (and therefore strictly controlled) since the beginning of recorded history. Macedon during the reign of Alexander and Phillip might be our best snap-shot of natural human sexuality on display. The Macedonians had very little in the way of sexual taboos (placed on men at least. The bodies of women were still considered the property of their husbands and fathers). In that setting many men had male lovers while also having a wife at home. Some men in Macedon only ever had wives and never participated in homosexuality, some only dabbled in homosexuality, some had robust sex lives with partners of both genders, and some were primarily homosexual. The point is that Macedon may be one of the few examples in Western history of a culture with no particular stance on homosexuality, leaving sexuality to fall into a natural spectrum of its own accord, and I feel it is a useful case study on the topic.

 

So personal experience, history, and the natural world force me to the conclusion that humans are mostly a bisexual species. This conclusion renders the slogan “Born Gay” to be misleading for all but a small percent of the population. However I understand exactly why the Gay rights community is so committed to the “born this way” message. I understand it so much that, from a purely strategic stand point, I usually just ignore the fact that I know better and use the “born this way” model myself. There is such a long and tortured history of having alternative sexuality minimized by calling it a “phase” or saying that “they’ll outgrow it” that its painful to acknowledge that indeed for many young people it is a phase. I understand not wanting to leave that door open least that argument be used as a cudgel to force an expectation rather than as a comforting reassurance that it’s ok for sexuality to be confusing. I understand why the Gay Rights community does not want to acknowledge that, in fact, the majority of the population exist in a kind of grey area where they probably could have happy healthy and fulfilling sex lives within whatever social structure they found themselves, that most people could be content leading a sex life as a Spartan, a Pirate, a Macedonian, or a modern American. I understand that acknowledging that fact gives the Evangelist and Social Conservative the room they need to step in and try to pray the gay away or coerce conformity by telling you than you can, and should, change.

 

So I agree with the principles behind “born that way” thinking, and I acknowledge that in some cases person being “born that way” is a legitimate and true statement. However I think such a definite and binary manifestation of sexuality is the exception, not the rule. Additionally I feel asserting that sexual preference is a quality you are born with denies the very real fact that sexuality undergoes development through the adolescent years, and can certainly be shaped by key experiences. All in all I think the desire to cast sexuality as being both binary and finalized is a bad call, obfuscating the varied and fluctuating nature of sexuality in favor of a more politically manageable set of clear labels. And while I will probably still continue to use “born that way language” for the sake of political expedience, I personally prefer to think of sexuality as an appetite rather than a trait. Some people like chocolate; some people like vanilla. Some people hate onions when they are young, then as they grow older they develop a taste for them. Some people figure out what they like and stick with it; Some people keep a diverse menu throughout their life. There is just no accounting for taste, so I think we should stop trying.

 

Picking Christ from a Line-up

True Fact: Jesus did not look like the Anglo Saxon lady-boy of Catholic tradition. He did not look like the malnourished vagabond of Protestant tradition. He did not look like the broad shouldered Hot Dad of Mormon tradition. He also did not look like the highschool art teacher of Jehovah’s Witness tradition.

Jesus was a middle-eastern Holy Man, with all of his ancestors back to the dawn of civilization living in and coming from what is modern-day Palestine. The closest well-known image in popular culture to what Jesus actually looked like is Osama bin Laden.

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