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Monday, April 15, 2019

What Debussy and Sibelius Teach Us About Patriotism

Program notes written for Columbia University Medical Center Symphony Orchestra's Spring concert.

Both Debussy and Sibelius shared a tendency to decry nationalism in their music. Sibelius described his Symphony No. 2 as strictly non-programmatic. Debussy was known to be "without ideology and without convention."

But to what extent are composers, or, for that matter, any of us, impervious to the patriotic sentiments of the time? For Sibelius and Debussy, nationalism—the kind grounded in natural landscape, poetic voice, and shared commonality—permeated their music.

In 1901, when Sibelius finished his Symphony No. 2, Finland was in a struggle for independence. The symphony has, in the years after its composition, been popularly named the "Symphony of Independence." The belief, though never formally acknowledged by Sibelius himself, is that the composer wrote the Symphony with an independent Finland in mind.

The Symphony has been described as a "confession of the soul"—perhaps, the soul of a nation’s natural grandeur. Sir Colin Davis captures the image in his relation of Symphony to a poem by William Wordsworth: Grand in itself alone, but in that breach / Through which the homeless voice of waters rose / That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged / The Soul, the Imagination of the whole.

At around the same time, across the Baltic and North Sea to Paris in 1903, Debussy was commissioned to write a piece to test out a new instrument: the chromatic harp. Thus, Danses was born (also adapted for double-action harp), and named "sacred dance" for its ritualistic parallel octaves, modal harmonies, and lilting waltz.

For Sibelius, Wordsworth may be an imagined muse; for Debussy, the symbolist poets such as Mallarmé and Baudelaire were direct muses. Debussy's music is known to evoke natural experiences: the moon, the sea, the sunset. To Debussy, poetry and music were part and parcel of his vision for a national French music. Conjoined with the Symbolist movement, his music was fueled in reaction against Germanic Wagnerian influence. Debussy writes: "we have been unfaithful to the music tradition of our race for more than a century and a half…since Rameau we have had no purely French tradition… "

A context of nation and time for any piece of art is revealing. To be sure, there is value in music for music’s sake, or “pure music.” There is value in not subscribing to another’s imposed characterization of a piece of music, or poem, or natural landscape.

But everything we make also belongs to us in some way, which means we must take responsibility for it. Sibelius did, and Debussy did. In our time where American patriotism is fraught with Trumpist nationalism, a kind of Patriotism that celebrates the best in ourselves and the nation are found in the ecological relationships we have with each other. They hark to the purity of natural landscape and rootedness in a place without exclusionary sentiments.

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018: My year—of books—in review

I was inspired to start sharing a list of what I've read from Jill Dolan, a teacher who shaped my writing and how I see the world and engage with it. I thought I'd share those reads, here. Some of them were published in 2018, and most of them are (age-)old. Perhaps some will resonate with you in your search for books to kick off the new year. (Listed in the order that I read them.)


Milk and Honey by Rupi Kamir. Raw and accessible short poems arranged cleverly on the page along with sketches that manage to capture complex experiences and emotions like love, loss, and sexuality.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Based imaginatively around Lincoln's relationship with his son Willie, a story of love in phantasmagorical realms. The characters speak in atypical dialogue: with those from the real and underground world merging, and through citations rather than quotations. Deeply human.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's memoir recounting his excursions through the streets of Paris with Fitzgerald and other friends. This also makes the perfect traveling companion to Paris! Read also for the prose, of which one of my professors shared, "Hemingway taught me how to write."

Washington Square by Henry James. The tragedy of a girl who was never truly loved by her father, who becomes a woman who isn't truly loved by her first love, and her resulting inability to love again. I couldn't help thinking to Portrait of a Lady while reading this—those questions of loving purely, the entanglements of money and outside influence, and the choices and costs of attachment.

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. A story about how to be good to each other, how society restricts women and men, and unrealized (not unrequited) love. I learned a lot about Gilded Age New York and the social proprieties of the time. The prose is gorgeous. I've marked my favorite sentences and shared some in this post from my literary tumblr. (Also relevant: this post on the play adaptation.)

Persuasion by Jane Austen. I loved Emma, but I loved Persuasion even more for the quiet strength and sensibility of the protagonist, Anne Elliot. Thanks to Ritah Chumdermpadetsuk for lending me this book while in the midst of re-reading it herself!

The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens. Very relatable as a PhD student, in the journey of scholarly activity with real-life activity, friendship, and romance. Part memoir, part imagination. Thanks to Liz Butterworth for this thoughtful gift, and perfectly timed after the prior books!

Circe by Madeline Miller. I first heard about this as a recommendation through NPR's "Pop Culture Happy Hour" podcast. The strength of the female protagonist in a world dominated by men hooked me.


Evicted by Matthew Desmond. A deeply personal and heartbreaking look at poverty and housing in Milwaukee. Sociologists may critique that Desmond's account is too journalistic, but the storytelling is humane and eye-opening.

What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Muller. Populism involves not simply appealing to the popular masses and a national identity, but, as Muller argues, specifically involves excluding others in order to do so.

Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. If you've wondered what "civil society" is, this is the book to read (or at least Chapter 1). The claims may be grand and a bit diffuse, but he has created a framework for how we can understand civil society through types of "social capital."

Writings of Abraham Lincoln. A journalism professor asked us who the best writer ever to live was. His answer: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has taught me to think with greater moral clarity.

The Confessions by Saint Augustine. A glimpse into the soul-encompassing, redemptive possibility that Christianity and religion offers, in a way that speaks more convincingly to those who don't identify with a religion because he speaks so personally and poetically.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism applied to individual freedoms, and in a way that, if like me, you haven't had much exposure to political philosophy, you may you find yourself pleasantly intrigued.

American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. Very accessible look into religion in America: the denominations and the demographics, with clear and compelling charts and graphs. The end is a bit Putnam-esque with a broad claim that different religions bring us together, but that last conclusion is not convincing nor representative of the work as a whole.

The Politics of Volunteering by Nina Eliasoph. Examines the power imbalances inherent in volunteering, such as the problematic use of the word "empower." Insightful, though at some points diffuse and abstract.

Educated by Tara Westover. A powerful story of personal triumph through unimaginable adversity. The extremity of events described felt at times awkward, partly because they were so shocking and partly because some of the language felt unnatural.

Becoming by Michelle Obama. Honest and delightful. The flaw may be that there is so much of Michelle to see, and we want more of it! I was left wishing many chapters could have been extended. It also provides another perspective on Barack that I sometimes found more relatable than his own memoirs.

Privilege by Shamus Rahman Khan. A sharp and observant sociological inquiry into a prestigious high school in NH where those who have privilege learn how to embrace openness yet actively perpetuate the privilege they benefit from. The writing is superb. Thanks to Emily Rutherford for suggesting and lending the book to me!

Constitutional Faith by Sanford Levinson. Where does authority of constitutional interpretation come from and how highly should we revere the Constitution? Levinson compares legal theory to religious faith. It's confusing (although meant to be accessible to the layperson), but the topics are fascinating.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The "Fantastique" fantasies of Hector Berlioz

Did you know Berlioz first studied medicine before making a beeline for music?
I come reeling tonight from a performance of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, performed by the Columbia University Medical Center Symphony Orchestra, through which, I had the wonderful opportunity to reignite a dormant love of playing clarinet (not played since high school!). I thought I'd share, below, the program notes I was invited to write for the program, which, as it happens in the spirit of this Synapse, suitably has its own art-science (music-medicine) link!


Hector Berlioz first traveled to Paris in 1821 to study not music, but medicine, in the footsteps of his physician father. He left after a year of study to become a composer, writing in his memoir, “The thought of being a doctor, of studying anatomy, of dissecting bodies...instead of surrendering body and soul to music, the sublime art whose grandeur I could already imagine! [...] No!” Yet despite his aversion to anatomy, perhaps the exposure predisposed him to a fascination with macabre and death—risqué elements in the revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique.

Berlioz intended his symphony to, as he described, “stagger the musical world.” Few would question that he did, indeed, succeed. Described by some as the most innovative piece of the 19th Century, the symphony exemplified and ignited the genre of program music—music which is intended to tell a story or series of events. The work was inspired by Berlioz’s smitten passion for actress Harriet Smithson after a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1827 (where Smithson played Ophelia). The then 26-year-old Berlioz wrote Smithson an impassioned love letter, to which she never replied, and which left him full of terrible desire and longing. Even a year after encountering Smithson, his feelings could not fail to be expressed:

“Can you tell me what it is, this capacity for emotion, this force of suffering that is wearing me out? … I am indeed wretched – inexpressibly! … Today it is a year since I saw HER for the last time … Unhappy woman, how I loved you! I shudder as I write it – how I love you!”

Six weeks after sending the letter containing these words to a friend, he had written his first version of the symphony. Was Berlioz as mad as his personified self, “the author,” described in his program notes (1845 version here), who took opium and dreamed of his beloved—to the point of murdering her and her bewitched transformation? (Berlioz did, in fact, take a lethal dose of opium in an attempt to gain Smithson’s hand in marriage. When she agreed, he drank an antidote stored in his other pocket.)

When Berlioz first set out the program notes in 1845, he wrote, “This indispensable for a complete understanding of the dramatic plan of the work,” likening the notes to “the spoken text of an opera.” But in an 1855 version, he wrote that the program notes could be dispensed of entirely (while retaining the titles of each movement), and that “The author hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.”

If Berlioz had started to feel the bite of critics who scoffed at dramatism as kitschy or at the inclusion of extra-musical content as a crime against “pure music,” it was too late. The precedent had been set. One need only to think of the many celebrated pieces to come: Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Dukas' The Sorceror’s Apprentice, or the birdsong-like cries in Mahler’s symphonies, to name a few examples of programmatic influence.

Whether we choose to listen to the Fantastique with the program notes or without, we have much to appreciate in the evocative melodies, contrasting moods, and rich sonorities. Physician and musician Albert Schweitzer said, “Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf.” It’s a good reminder for our world today. We have the chance to be taken away and transported.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The claims on the heart of Albert Schweitzer

"Like music a man's life means more than the sum of its parts. It is a composition with many themes and one transcendent meaning. This is a fact of all life and the life of Albert Schweitzer is not an exception but an example."

A professor, wise and generous, introduced me to Albert Schweitzer. When I shared I hadn't heard of him, he told me I must learn. That's how I came to discover this documentary.

Dr. Schweitzer was organist, philosopher, theologian, and physician. After almost a decade in the other professions, he turned to medicine at age 30, against the advice of his friends and family who questioned whether "service" wasn't already found in the professions he was currently engaged in. Dr. Schweitzer was determined to serve once he turned 30, and had his eyes set on medicine. Upon receiving his medical degree, he traveled to Africa where he founded a hospital.

A former dean, beloved by his students, shared to us that his mentor once told him there were two kinds of people: warriors and lovers.  If I believe the dichotomy (and I'm not sure I do, as perhaps some of the strongest warriors are lovers and strongest lovers, warriors), I'd probably fall into the lover group. I've learned through Humans in Harmony, the nonprofit I'm working to build, that I want to do this kind of work for a long time.  It's too early for me decide anything, but I'm glad to hear that Dr. Schweitzer didn't know the specific way he would serve, but he knew when the time came with focus and independence, and took a leap in doing so.

The work of the world is common as mud. We can feel like we are cogs in a broken machine. Politics. Medicine. Education. Albert Schweitzer reminds us of what seems so ordinary yet rare in our lives: that simple dedication of revering our fellow living creatures. Here is real work, the kind in this poem:

To Be of Use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Age of Innocence at McCarter Theater

These flowers are less symbolic than the ones in Age of Innocence, but they sat on my windowsill in England. Of note: yellow roses.
It's hard to believe that it has been more than a month since I saw the stage adaptation of Age of Innocence and more than two months since I first read Edith Wharton's gorgeous novel. I promised myself and a couple of friends that I would share my impressions of the adaptation—directed by Douglas McGrath and performed at McCarter Theater—with special thanks to my friend Jess who had first recommended that I read the novel upon moving back to NYC (I am so glad she did!).

Age of Innocence sweeps us into the Gilded Age of the 1870s, placing us in a setting where the society has everything to do with the story. It begins as an old man exclaims, “If one had habitually breathed in the New York air there were times when anything less crystalline seemed stifling.” In the novel, we see events unfold through the eyes of our protagonist, the young Newland Archer, in real time. But in the adaptation, it is an old man—Archer as an elderly man—who reflects back upon his life and narrates. On stage, we know from the beginning that a lifetime will come to pass before our eyes. From the old man, we hear in his exclamation an exasperation with a city’s set customs that the man has lived through. But when reading that same line through the thoughts of the young Archer, we are privy to his naïve admiration for this city’s social propriety. 

On stage, the subtleties of scene embrace our senses, but miss that tool the narrator of the word has at her disposal: inner thought. So, when Archer spontaneously sends Countess Olenska, his forbidden love interest, a bouquet of “fiery” yellow roses rather than the usual pure white lilies for his fiancée, he remarks onstage, "What am I doing?!". On the page, Archer subconsciously justifies his actions—no expressed outcry, no pained expression. As readers, we are invited to speculate upon our protagonist's unexamined thoughts in our own minds, analyzing his intentions and desires. But as viewers, we can't indulge in back-and-forth speculation. For a point to come across, we must feel it—the colored cheeks, heart-quickening breathlessness, shocked expression, strained voice, and then there’s the old man—the older Archer—re-experiencing with alarm his actions alongside young Archer on the same stage. All of this makes it apparent that at that moment something is awry. None of our own flirtations with the possibilities of the page. Rather, the immediate sensory symbolisms of the moment.

The old Archer wears a white lily in his coat pocket, as does the young Archer—constancy for May. A vase of yellow roses adorns the piano, which turn bright red when Olenska enters the room—Archer’s passion for Olenska. May sits under a peach tree as she implores Archer to give her up if he loves another—ripe with innocent goodness. 

The sensory feast heightens an aura of dreaminess, of unreality—which is a theme of the story: Archer reaches for what might have been, an ideal of what could be, and savors the delight of that unreached ideal. Olenska embodies that ideal. She appears and the lighting is slanted, mystical—in the softness of moonlight, or the glow of dusk—and in one heartbreaking scene where the lovers unite but cannot be together, petals fall like snow outside the windows. The song, “Beautiful Dreamer,” haunts us throughout the play: first when Olenska and Archer sing together, again when Archer sings with May, and in the final scene when Olenska sings out her window 26 years later. The song, an auditory exemplar of dreaminess, doesn't exist in the novel yet in the adaptation it even plays a plot device: it is because of the song that May confirms that Archer loves Olenska, as he begs her to sing a song that he sang with Olenska, and the wooing words render May speechless mid-song. 

When is it not right to love? What obligations do we have to those around us, to our neighbors? How could we bear to hurt those who are good, even if it costs us our own happiness? These are the kind of moral questions at the core of the story. Olenska reflects Archer’s own sentiments back to him, “We shall hurt others less. Isn't it, after all, what you always wanted?” If Archer had to give up his respect for society and kindliness towards neighbors for his own happiness and for Olenska, the dream and love would break: “I can't love you unless I give you up,” says Olenska. Each sacrifice for the other and for those around them. 

Moral questions lend themselves better to reflection in the privacy of one’s (reading) room rather than in a theater. In this theater, we experience a vivid, beautiful, well-executed dream, but the dream suffers from a lack of trust in how real the events are: are they memories seen through rose-colored lens of an older narrator? Are they too sensual and exquisite so as to evade scrutiny of thoughts? 

Even if not in the theater, the time for analysis inevitably comes (probably in the lobby!). We have to grapple with what happens—what is dream and what is reality, and what is better, if there can be a “better”? While Archer lives in dreams and visions, that is not all. If that was all, the story would be tragic. In the ending scene, we want to snap Archer out of dream and into reality. But the reality is that Archer and Olenska stayed true to their values and themselves, their unrealized love made them better people, and this is rare and beautiful. What happened was not a romanticized reverie clouded by an elder’s reflection of youth. What happened unfolded in a real time, place, and manner. People tried to live out their lives as best they could, afforded to them by the limits of society—the story that we try to live out today as best we can.  

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Being whole together: Yo-Yo Ma and Krista Tippett in conversation

An absolutely lovely discussion between Yo-Yo Ma and Krista Tippet, on On Being, "Music Happens Between the Notes," which I've excerpted below.  I listened to the podcast last month when it came out, and am so glad to revisit just as I begin to look into music and civic engagement. I'm excited by the ways that the arts can foster not just social connectedness or socio-emotional well-being, but the sense of civic participation. The state of civic participation and democracy worries me, for reasons obvious to us, not because I don't have faith in the goodness of the people, but because so much seems to rest on the people in face of forces of negative influence. Lincoln said in his first inaugural speech, "while the people maintain their virtue and vigilance, no administration,by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." I think musicians and artists and humanists share a similar kind of philosophy, to let the ideas and connections spread which bind us to do us good. I do hope it works.

Here's the except:

MR. MA: So it's not about how many people are in the hall. It's not about proving anything. It's about sharing something.

MS. TIPPETT: It's about being whole together, too, isn't it? Which includes all these things that could go wrong.

MR. MA: Absolutely. Rewind to September 11. On the morning of September 11, I was in Denver. At 9:00 my wife calls me and says turn on the television. Something bad is happening. I turn on the television. I'm supposed to go to Colorado Springs on the 11th and to Denver to play another concert on the 12th and the 13th in Phoenix, Arizona — three different orchestras. And in the wake of this horrific thing, every orchestra had to decide, do we cancel or do we play?

And what every orchestra decided was, we're going to play. We may change the program a little. We're going to actually be together and have a moment, literally, of being together. Music will be the way that we will come together, because we're asserting ourselves as a community, as a people, as a city, as whatever. And we need to be together. To this day — now, this is now, how many, 12 years later — when, if I go back to any of those places, not a single person does not remember vividly what that evening meant.

MS. TIPPETT: I think that's a wonderful image for some language you use of being a citizen artist; that this insistence that this must be at the table, arts, in music, as we define ourselves culturally and weight it as defining alongside politics and economics and the things we discuss that we sometimes seem to take more seriously.

MR. MA: Well, I think it depends how much room we have for what. And the thing is, again, what is it and why? What are we doing here? Who are we? And I often ask musicians, “Do you think of yourselves as the instrument that you play, as your identity? Or do you think of yourself as a musician? Or do you think of yourself as a human being? And what is the ratio between the three?” I think that the citizen part is somewhere towards the human part, because we're looking at how we fit in within society. And if we look at our Constitution, we have an ideal of what our nation could and should be like. So, how do we participate? I know I, for one, often feel frustrated and say, “There's so many things that are happening, and I have nothing to do with it. I'm not connected to it. Therefore, I can't care about it, because it's just a waste of time and energy, because it's all beyond me.” Now, that's kind of like giving up. It may be true.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think that's an experience so many people have, so many people who do different things in different corners.

MR. MA: But ultimately, if we are the democracy that we claim to be, it does require full participation. And that's the anomaly that I'm sort of trying to wrestle with in myself, too. As a musician, I'm thinking, OK, well what in the world can I do? Essentially it's like what my wife always says to me, “Don't just make lists. Just ask, what can I do to help?” And I think if we ask, if we even start to look, you will find lots and lots of needs.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I love this language Rilke about living the questions. And I think there is something powerful about posing the question. You can't live into it unless you ask it.

MR. MA: Right. But once you ask it, you already put yourself in a position of slight vulnerability because you don't know the answer. And I think that by doing that, you can actually begin to see where the solutions may lie. At least you start to open yourself to someone else who might propose a solution that starts to lead us in a certain position. I think that's where the basis of a cultural citizen or a citizen musician comes in, because I think that as musicians, music actually very easily crosses spaces?

You go from people's earbuds, into concert halls, into living rooms, into cars; it can exist across a lot of different physical spaces and geographical spaces.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Literary Vesicle returns!

Hey readers! Remember the "literary vesicle" of the synapse? Thought I'd bring back books to the synapse. Here are some I'm reading, and then some I'm hoping to read soon:

What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Muller
A Princeton pre-read. Muller demonstrates how populism must be differentiated from simply appealing to the popular masses. Populism is about excluding others to reinforce a "truer" notion of a (national) identity. Case examples include: yes, Trump.

A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr.
After reading Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, I thought I'd explore the life and mind of one of Obama's greatest role models. I was also curious as to how Lincoln drew on the Bible teachings in the challenges of the Civil War, while maintaining an independence from the institutions of religion like the church.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
In the midst of reading Lincoln's biography and stumbling upon this piece of fiction in the bookstore, based imaginatively around Lincoln's relationship with his son Willie, I decided to pick it up as a flight read. The supernatural aspects have derailed me at times at night, but that's more of a statement on my own vulnerability to supernatural thoughts than anything book-related.

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kamir
Picked up from my sister. The poetry is so easy to read that it doesn't really feel like poetry, but more like self-help or friend's tumblr for the broken-hearted and healing. Not a bad thing when you're looking for something raw.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
When Dr. Arnold Gold passed away, a New York Times obituary noted how he was deeply impacted by this book. The story features a young aspiring doctor who tries to balance the ideals of research (for the sake of discovery and learning) with medicine (for practical outcomes). To be honest, I'm not entirely captivated by the prose and it doesn't portray medicine in a very appealing light (not a bad thing, but intriguing considering its influence on Dr. Gold). I am only 1/5 of the way through...

Evicted by Matthew Desmond
So humane and eye-opening. One of those books that reshapes not only how I think about the particular topic of poverty and eviction by transporting me to real places, but also how I think about a field—in this case, my admiration for what sociology can look like at its finest. 

On my to-read list...
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Intern: A Doctor's Initiation by Sandeep Jauhar
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Against Empathy by Paul Bloom
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein