How to Get More Out of Your Gym Membership

The weather has finally broken, and with any luck winter is behind us. Beach season will be here before we know it, and in an effort to look and feel good for summer, a lot of people have gotten gym memberships. There isn’t much point in buying a gym membership, though, unless the benefits are going to be reaped from it. Otherwise, a better course of action might be to save the money, drink one less cappuchino a day, and call it a draw. But if you’re serious about getting results, consider some of the following. I am not a certified trainer or medical expert, however; these recommendations are based largely on my own experience. Consult a certified person for more information.


1. Go!

This one’s obvious, but the more important point is how to avoid the pitfalls that prevent your actually getting to the gym. Schedule it; know how it fits into your weekly routine. How many times a week depends on what your exact routine is, but let’s just say that, whether you’re at the gym or on the bike trail, you should be working out a minimum of five days a week.

Don’t allow distractions, even important distractions, to crowd out your gym time. At gym time, the gym is the most essential thing. The other stuff can be important in its own time. Turn off the computer, leave your phone at home, and just go. The Internet will be there when you get back, and if it isn’t, we’re probably all better off for it.

In my own experience, I’ve found that the most crucial part of a workout routine is getting dressed and heading out the front door. The rest follows naturally, and barring sheer laziness, there’s no such thing as a bad workout. Even the worst workout beats getting fat in a cubicle.


2. Make a circuit and keep moving

I’ve seen it over and over again: people sit on machines for twenty minutes at a time, taking long rests between sets. If you do all three sets of an exercise at once, you will be slowed down, and then the overall benefit of the workout will be compromised. Unless you’re one of those big thick power lifters this is probably not the way to go, especially if you need to trim down a bit.

Make a circuit of various exercises and keep moving. Obviously, you’ll have to work different muscles in adjacent exercises. For instance, on back day, I do rows, then shoulders, and then back extension, then lat pull down, and then ab exercises in the captain’s chair. This gives the various muscles time to rest, but while one muscle is resting, I’m working on another. My heart rate stays up, and I get more done faster. How uneventful are the lives of the equipment squatters? Don’t they have anything else to do?


3. Watch out for the lazy people

In every gym there will always be people who don’t take my advice in #2. They’re gonna get in your way. It’s annoying, but there isn’t much you can do about it, especially these days when people are becoming increasingly unapproachable. If it seems possible, ask an equipment squatter if you can do a set while they’re resting, texting, googling, fiddling with their iPod, etc. Some just might let you. Otherwise, you’re going to have to work around them. This might mean that instead of doing a lat pull down, for instance, you’ll have to do an old-fashioned pull up. Know what your options are with the equipment in the gym so that you don’t waste time waiting for people who workout sub specie aeternitatis.


4. Change it up

When I was in the middle of losing weight, I would sometimes hit plateaus, as is common. In this situation I would handle it one of two ways: I would go pig out to restart my metabolism, or I would cut back to perform a similar trick on my body. This is a form of changing it up. If you do the same workout all the time, you run the risk of your body getting so accustomed to it that it won’t be of full benefit. You also run the risk of phoning it in absentmindedly. Change things up. Use different exercises from time to time to work the same muscle group. Instead of barbells all the time, use dumbbells sometimes. Also, every fourth week I do high reps and low weights, rather than the routine for the other three weeks, which is high weights and low reps. Just make sure you’re still making enough effort. If it seems too easy, you probably need to add weight or reps.


5. Eat better

I have a friend who used to say, “You’re a runner; you can eat what you want.” This is from a couch potato’s nutrition manual. It’s very easy to overeat after a workout. You must know what your nutritional needs are and not take in more than that. The kinds of calories you consume are also important. For a weight lifter, it’s recommended that you consume at least one gram of protein for every pound of lean muscle mass. Whey protein supplements are a good resource here because it comes without a lot of the regrettable by-products that other sources of protein have. Take it right before or right after working out. I even know some people who carry it with them through the gym. Stay away from energy drinks; they’re candy. Make sure you’re getting enough carbs, but not too much. Consume them earlier in the day, and, in the main, before your workout occurs if at all possible. Stay away from junk food. If you have an irrepressible sweet tooth, as I do, designate one day a week on which you’re allowed to have a dessert.


6. Study

There is merit to simply getting started even if you’re not sure what you’re doing. But by all means study exercise science as much as possible. As little as fifteen minutes a week can make all the difference. I like Scooby’s website; he gives a lot of good information in a succinct manner without running a racket or engaging in buffoonery. He’s also honest about what is verifiable fact and what is his opinion. His videos make it very easy to get a lot out of the website, so you have no excuses left.

Make sure your resources are reputable people, and avoid gimmicks that promise quick results. I almost gave up on weightlifting last year because I didn’t think any progress was happening. This was impatience spurred on by those ridiculous late night commercials that try to convince the viewers that you can go from being Jabba the Hut to Christian Ronaldo in six months. It’s totally irresponsible. I wonder how many people with an otherwise good head on their shoulders have given up on being in shape because snake oil salesmen skewed their expectations.

There’s also the option of taking classes or getting training sessions at your gym. Again, make sure you’re dealing with reputable people. Not every licensed driver is good on the road, and not every certified trainer has his stuff together. I met with one guy who said he was doing so much cardio that he didn’t bother working his legs at all in the lifting department. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life, and never asked his advice again. Also, he had a bigger gut than I did in my fast food days.

If you do end up with a good trainer—and in my current gym there are several, thankfully—there are things they can give you in a one-on-one situation that you might not be able to give yourself. For one thing, they can get to know your needs and help you sift through the thicket of information and contradicting opinions that are out there. Secondly, they can push you in a workout beyond what you thought was your limit. This is also safer because you have a spotter. Earlier this week I was on the bench press by myself when I experienced form failure in the middle of a rep. The weights went crashing everywhere. It was totally awesome but I’m lucky I don’t have a broken collarbone. That’s why we’re supposed to use spotters.


7. Check your progress

In any fitness effort it’s important to hold yourself accountable. This will not only keep you motivated; it will also let you know if you’re on the right track with your approach. The first thing most people think of is body weight. This is important, but don’t forget that if you’re lifting weights your weight will probably go up even as you get thinner and/or fitter. I also recommend tracking body fat percentage. The equipment that uses bioelectric impedance may not be absolutely accurate, but under consistent circumstances you will get a good relative idea of your fat percentage, and as long as that number is going down, that’s all you need to know. You can also get a tape measure and measure your waist, biceps, and whatever else might be giving you anxiety in terms of its size. Finally, look in the mirror, and take pictures occasionally, and save them for comparison. You’ll be amazed. Some people might accuse you of being a narcissist, but these days that’s usually no worse than the pot calling the kettle black.

Finally, remember H.L. Mencken’s sturdy advice that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. As long as you’re making an honest daily effort—and there is no substitute for that—you will be better off in the long run, occasional bumps in the road notwithstanding. And don’t forget to have fun. You’ll never feel better than when your body rewards your sweat with a nice dose of endorphins.

Now get started.

Good Friday Stations: Three local bands in South Philly

Just around the corner from the iconic Melrose Diner in South Philly sits a little dive bar called the Station, so quiet most of the time that I thought it was abandoned until I met someone who worked as a bartender there. It’s one of the few bars that still allows smoking, which created a time-travelling effect this past Friday night while three local bands played the night away for the bargain entry price of $5.


Opening the evening was Muffin Man, a three-piece group that has a country or folk feel, with maybe some metal influences thrown in. I don’t know their music at all so I was a bit lost for most of their set. By accident I sat in a disadvantageous place to hear vocals, and by the time I realized it a local neighbor had found me and started chatting me up, so it was too late to move. Where Muffin Man excelled, however, was in their very last piece, all instrumental, which sounded psychedelic and improvisatory. It was as if the musicians laid down all the molds and just said what they had to say. It was one of the better moments of the evening.


Next up was Adam and Dave’s Bloodline, a five-piece band that I got to know by being one of Adam’s regular customers at South Philly Taproom, not even two blocks from where the show took place. They began with all four selections from their most recent album, 2×2, produced by Founding Fathers Records. One of the great things about this group’s music is that it doesn’t rely on constant singing; long instrumental interludes allow the music to say more than words could. “Dark Clouds,” for instance, features some of these, and the listener needs it after hearing a refrain that laments, “And so we look down on this grave we dug together, knowing it won’t be long ‘til we’re lying there forever.”


Adam and Dave’s Bloodline is well known to have a plethora of influences—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, among others, have been mentioned. My ear hears some Ska, too, but maybe that’s because it’s all I listened to in the mid-90’s besides Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. But the important thing is this: these diverse influences are pulled together into an original approach, so that you’re not saying anything except, “That sounds like Adam and Dave.”


St. James and the Apostles, the final band, made for a perfect way to conclude Good Friday at a place called the Station. They didn’t make quite as much racket as they normally do at, say, Johnny Brenda’s, but otherwise the walls may have blown out. With alternative, acid rock, psychedelic flavors, no one would be surprised to hear that The Doors, Pink Floyd or Black Flag are among their influences along with “anything that has soul or kicks ass,” as one of their online profiles says.  Besides their cool name, the first thing I ever noticed about them was drummer Jeff Castner, who gets a huge sound out of the set without banging on it tastelessly. Percussion teachers tell their students to “pull” the sound out of the drum, and that’s exactly what he does. But there is not a weak spot in this trio of cousins who formed only a few years ago. Organist Mike Kiker has chops and can play real licks, not just celestial background chords. Guitarist and lead singer Jamie Mahon tackles the music with full throat, going from words to onomatopoeia, and even to jubilus. Last month at Johnny Brenda’s I approached Mahon and said that he sang like he was possessed by the devil, and I love it. “No, no,” he insisted, “it’s the Holy Spirit.” Fitting, since the Holy Spirit is wind and fire, and this band makes your heart burn in all the right ways.


Among the marks of this band’s musical prowess is its willingness to get out of 4/4 time, an obvious but neglected virtue. Friday featured a bluesy song in 6/8, exactly the kind of rhythmic variety the rock genre needs. They’re also not afraid to draw on religious language, a result of a conflicted upbringing in Catholicism. They tested a new song on us locals called “Lazarus,” and they left us, as all performers with good taste do, wanting more.


I’m more or less a newcomer to the rock scene, having only recently shaken off young-fogeydom, but I have been impressed by the inherent desire of bands such as these to actually say something, to make art—not the art hidden away in hermetically sealed concert halls and museums, but a gritty art that doesn’t shun the everyday venue. Rock musicians of this sort hate commercial pop as much as Allan Bloom but because of their perspective are in a better position to critique it. Rock has earned for itself the chastisement of even careful observers because of its “decadence.” But in many respects it may prove to be one of the genres of music most capable of dealing with the crises of our times, if for no other reason than that it hasn’t been mummified by custom or taboo—yet. With any luck it will stay that way.


I think it’s my second grade portrait. I look like I have the chicken pox, except it’s not the chicken pox but a forehead dotted with scabs, the result of habitual scratching. (Strangely, I’ve never been a viola player. What’s the difference between a viola player and a dog? A dog knows when to stop scratching.)

I can remember lying in bed as a small child, scratching craters into my skin, probably the result of the poisonous combination of boredom and anxiety. One Saturday morning in particular is fixed in my memory. If my brother and I got out of bed too early, we got into trouble, so I lay in bed, catatonic with ennui, digging away at my forehead like I might find gold. My parents would reprimand me but not investigate any further than skin deep, it would seem.

My third grade teacher, who was something of a fanatic—she was the only teacher I ever had who paddled anyone in the class (not me!) or read the Bible, in 1986!—noticed this scratching habit and kept an eye on it until I quit doing it. For a time, I stopped. She even gave me a certificate, saying, “Mike has made it!” But the underlying problem was never solved, and it wasn’t long until the habit resumed. (That teacher, incidentally, left the profession that very year for a career in podiatry. I suspect she didn’t get along with the post-Eisenhower ways of public education.)

Anxiety isn’t all that drives this habit, though. I’ve always had something of a macabre fascination with scabs: how they form, how they heal, their translucence—yes, I know this is gross; I’m just telling you the truth. Part of what started this habit is that when I’d get a cut and a scab would form, I’d think, “Get this damn thing OFF me RIGHT NOW!” So I’d pull at it, and out flowed blood and water (which phenomenon is nothing miraculous, by the way). I’m often fascinated by the different consistencies of blood. It almost seems unpredictable.

Then there’s another aspect that I found really confusing, particularly at first: I experienced any pain associated with scab-picking as momentarily exhilarating. One of my trumpet teachers once accused me of being a masochist, and I can’t find any basis on which to argue with him. There’s this bolt of electricity that courses through the body at times with pain which can be thrilling—not that anyone should look forward to seeing me on a St. Andrew’s Cross any time soon.

Over the years, this habit has come and gone with fluctuations in happiness and anxiety, like eating too much, drinking too much, and having to sleep with the television on. About ten years ago it was really bad when I was in a place and a job that I hated and which gave me a lot of stress. At that time, I could still obscure the habit on my scalp under what was left of my hair, but now I’m bald as a cueball and there is no hiding it. It’s come back with a vengeance in the past few months. My scalp seems to be the first place my fingers crawl, and usually in my sleep, which makes it very hard to control. The advice of a friend to sleep with my hands in my pants would not seem to be foolproof in this matter. I now have a giant spot on the top of my head. It looks terrible and I wish I didn’t do it, but every morning, I wake up to a dome covered in blood.

I hate this habit. It’s embarrassing and gross. I had two dates last week. One was over coffee, so I could leave my hat on to cover up this blemish; the other was over lunch, so I had to bare all. Then I’m left to wonder what people think. Is he a leper? A cutter? The strangest documented case of herpes ever? It’s awful.

If only men were Angels! Maybe these wounds aren’t so much self-inflicted, at least in a poetic sense, as they are inflicted by wrestling matches with the demons that visit me at night, the devils of self-doubt, regret, sadness, loneliness. If only we could flap our wings and rise above our own mixed natures so easily! But I’m not dumb enough to think that we actually deserve better. Why, though, do I have to wear the marks of my affliction on my own body where everyone can see them? Only a megalomaniac would want to be so manifestly tormented. Well, maybe I am a megalomaniac and I’m the only one who doesn’t know it. Alas, even Angels aren’t immune from any of this. Lucifer was the greatest of them all, until he wasn’t.

While this habit is gross, it’s also picturesque, or illustrative. Vulnerasti cor meum—you have ravished my heart. My heart is wounded, and I bleed because of it. Your heart is likely wounded, too, and maybe you just bleed in a more allegorical way. The world is a valley of tears. Maybe my morning routine, though, is the cause for hope. I wake up, stumble into the bathroom, take a piss, glance into the mirror. It looks like a small volcano has erupted on my head. I bow down, bend over the sink, and wash off the clotted sadness. I make a cup of coffee and start all over. Life is too short, too precious, to be sticking our fingers in our wounds all the time. 

John Adams by David McCullough


John Adams might have had the most interesting personality of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, in spite of a multidisciplinary life and his flirtations with anarchism, comes off as a somewhat wooden and aloof figure—not a very good drinking buddy. Adams, on the other hand, had a fiery constitution and an earthy simplicity free of the demagogic populism of the likes of William Jennings Bryan. To be sure, he, like all politicians, was a jackass, but he owned up to it, which makes him more likable. His utter humanity stirs the temptation to forgive him for the Alien and Sedition Acts, but we mustn’t get carried away.


David McCullough unpacks John Adams’s colorful character in his classic biography; he commands the reader’s attention for the entirety of this volume, from the protagonist’s early beginnings and entrance exam at Harvard, to lonely walks with Thomas Jefferson as their friendship froze over on Market St. in Philadelphia, to the spellbinding correspondence with Abigail, who in her own right is one of the more remarkable figures of American history. It’s well known that an HBO miniseries has been based upon this author’s work. I actually saw that first, and was utterly transfixed. When I found this book on sale at The Strand at 12th and Broadway, I couldn’t resist.


If there was a single idea that animated Adams’s political philosophy, it was his Hobbesian view of human nature: Man is evil and requires restraint, whether as governor or governed. Counterpoise, in his opinion and in the view of many other Founding Fathers, was the only way to deal with concupiscence. This took form most famously as the checks and balances between the several branches of government, so that one body, and in particular one man, the president, could not run amok. In theory, too, counterpoise extends to the relationship between the government and the electorate, but how much of this really exists these days when the moneyed interests make sure that anyone with an original idea is unelectable? I suspect Adams would have a thing or two to say about our current conundrum.


A more important question is raised: What is the best kind of counterpoise? A bureaucracy decides that black boxes shall be put in all new cars. Car manufacturers are stuck with higher prices, and so are the customers. There is no mutuality in this scenario. Or what kind of counterpoise exists in an election between two parties, one of which argues for a top tax bracket of 37%, and the other, one of 33%? The American ship of State has become large and lethargic, incapable of meaningfully changing course, unable to go back to the beginning to be reinvigorated by her First Principles, at least when it comes to certain subjects.


The best kind of counterpoise, it seems to me, exists between two equal persons engaging in a voluntary transaction. You go to the bakery to buy cookies. Both you and the baker benefit, and if, someday, you decide you’re not satisfied with the cookies, you have the power of the dollar in your pocket to rectify the situation, either by finding a new bakery, asking for your money back, or getting a new order. There is great flexibility in this situation, and creative solutions are often reached because smart businessmen and intelligent customers know that everyone is eager to benefit and be of benefit in such a transaction. It seems to me this should be the model of societal organization as far as possible. What better counterpoise could there be, particularly one that promises rewards rather than threatening punishments?


Many political philosophers liken the relationship of a government and its citizens to a business and its customers. It’s called the Social Contract Theory, which I like to call the Social Hijack Theory. It goes something like this: When you’re born, you, or maybe your parents, consent to be ruled by the government that claims jurisdiction over the territory on which happen to you live. This reminds me a lot of infant Baptism or circumcision, and it’s a desperate attempt to pretend that government is anything but what it really is: a monopoly on coercion putatively in order to secure the peace of society. A particularly rich contemporary example of this was the recent statement by Senator Harry Reid that paying income tax is “voluntary.” Now if Social Contract Theory is true, then the Senator is right. If it is false, then taxation, particularly direct taxation, is theft. The Founders believed in Social Contract at least in substance if not in name, but maybe we need to go easy on them, since, for their time, they dared to attempt experiments in freedom that were as yet unaccomplished. But never forget that the Revolution was sparked over a tiny tea tax.


For me, Social Contract Theory is the stumbling block to Statism. It sits on the fulcrum of what it means to be truly free. I don’t want to take a too-sanguine view of human nature, which, if it is not wretched as such, turns to wretchedness often enough to warrant extreme caution. Nevertheless, Social Contract is a contradiction, a sacred myth to make us feel better about the more extreme measures we take to keep things under control. If any politician were ever to have the courage to publicly announce that human beings are like cattle that need to be poked, prodded, lassoed and fenced in, I would actually have some respect for him or her. At least there would be honesty involved. John Adams believed in Social Contract. He also believed that humanity was more or less depraved and that sometimes the government needed to step in to crack the whip. Liberty, for him, was defined more or less in a very strict paradigm.


Beyond the idea of counterpoise there isn’t much that points toward a self-contained political philosophy on Adams’s part. He was no Paine (who, Adams argued, was better at tearing down than building up) or Jefferson, however much Jefferson damaged the credibility of his own beliefs with his actions. There are a few Christian ideas that generate the classical liberal movement, but above these elementary principles, Adams carves out a path that is largely pragmatic. Perhaps it’s because he understood what Fred Reed has elucidated, that the trouble with self-contained worldviews is the failure to take into account the buoyancy of human excrement. Lest anyone think Adams unprincipled, however, one ought to take note of an important difference between pragmatism and convenience. Pragmatism is the art of sorting out what works; convenience is a system of excuses to get what one wants. In the case of a politician, this is usually tyranny. Adams had only one failure in this respect that I know of: the Alien and Sedition Acts, which for all the injustice they created—These laws prefigured American xenophobia about Mexicans and Arabs by 200 years—were not quite so severe as Abigail would have had them be. One gets the impression that if she had her way, accused “libelers” would have been taken to dungeons in Fishtown to be hung upside down to die of starvation. All the same, it’s hard to picture John Adams, who risked his life numerous times for the cause of freedom, having much patience for the pre-flight booby groping of the TSA. Moreover, the few evils Adams committed are arguably outweighed by the smack down he put on Alexander Hamilton, whose bellicose ambitions did not go unnoticed by the President, thanks in part to his First Lady. Standing armies had no part to play in the America of John Adams, even though he was almost alone in his insistence on building a formidable navy whose strength contributed to the avoidance of war with France.


As difficult as they are, the problems of human nature and the maintenance of a free society are always dealt with more profitably when the people of a given country are well educated. In contemporary Dumberica, we consider “education” to be glorified, over-priced vocational training. Beyond a given craft many people are afflicted with an appalling lack of curiosity, unless the subject has something to do with what a given celebrity is doing with his or her private parts.


John Adams, on the other hand, favored the traditional liberal arts education, familiarity with ancient languages, the classics, and even of music. He understood that the whole person needed to be formed. He held forth on this matter when he drafted the Constitution of Massachusetts and included a paragraph on education that happily went unmolested by the committee that reviewed it. Alas, if this approach ever took root across the land, Andrew Carnegie and other industrialists ruined it all when they re-tooled the schools to create, in the words of George Carlin, “obedient workers.” It wasn’t long afterwards that we had Prohibition and trashy novels while we progressed from savagery to barbarism without ever having experienced civilization, to quote George Bernard Shaw.


John Adams, for all the posts he held, never once campaigned for political office. He admitted to being beset by ambition; all the same, a part of him longed most to be with his family on his farm at Peacefield. Sadly, late in life he regretted being absent so much from his younger sons Charles and Thomas, both of whom foundered in their cups in adulthood; Charles even drank himself to death. Adams’s sense of guilt in this is palpable. While modern presidents daydream about what their legacy will be, Adams focused on all that he had given up in order to be a central figure in early America. He who loses his life finds it.


The electoral system of the late 18th century allowed the possibility that someone would be dragged into the presidency against his own wishes. Maybe we should return to those days when state legislatures selected their members of the Electoral College and the people, as a result, had only a very indirect influence on the election—and what’s the problem with that, since Social Contract Theory is a mere fairy tale? Think of the peace and quiet! No more political commercials, and instead of victorious candidates giving smug victory speeches on election night, they’ll instead be where they belong: in the bathroom next to the commode, contemplating their difficult future. We should paraphrase a saying of the Catholic Church: He who goes into an election a president comes out a governor, a talk show host, or even a congressman from Wisconsin. Maybe then we’ll end up with leaders who are plausibly sane.


Oh, what’s the use? I remain unconvinced by all this poli-sci jibber-jabber. I propose a society of seven billion secessions, a starburst of human freedom and creativity, a world of mutuality and free will, where the counterpoise exists at the micro level, where it can actually be effective. Maybe we’ll never get there, but if we do, some paradoxical thanks will be owed to the likes of John Adams, who dared to take a step out into the deep, into the unknown territory of a freer society than had been known in most places to that point. We would benefit from similar courage, and in this David McCullough’s book on John Adams offers us an excellent profile.

A Review of Birds without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres

Imagine a community where people of different races and religions live side-by-side in relative peace, where social units are constructed organically from diverse roots and the local clerics playfully tease each other as “infidels” as a sign of friendship. This is the kind of place Louis de Bernieres depicts in his novel Birds without Wings, which is set at the turn of the 20th century in a town called Eskibahce in southwestern modern-day Turkey, then a part of the waning Ottoman Empire.

The story begins with the prologue of Iskander the Potter, who makes clay bird whistles for his son Abdul and his friend Nico, each of whom eventually assumes a nickname for the kind of bird song his whistle makes—Karatavuk and Mehmetcik (black bird and red robin), respectively. These two boys have different faiths and traditions, but, like the rest of the town, they form bonds that transcend these would-be divisions.

Like all small towns Eskibahce is filled with gossip and intrigue, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. There is no such thing as anonymity. Traditions are kept but they are quietly relaxed when common sense suggests it: Father Christophoros, the Greek Orthodox pastor, allows his wife to sit and eat with him rather than stand behind him and wait for him to finish, and the Muslims frequently ask their Christian neighbors to go into the church and light a candle in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary on behalf of one of their needs. The Muslims look forward to the Christian feast days and are delighted by the drinking and dancing which accompany these occasions. There is no Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Eskibahce. Intermarrying between the religions is even allowed. Customarily the bride would take the husband’s faith, though she was still allowed to practice her original religion privately if she wished. This is anything but the smug certainty that often permeates religious and ideological discourse.

Another hallmark of health is in the tolerance of the locals for eccentricity. It was either Richard Weaver or H.L. Mencken who commented that the modern mindset has no room for personality; anyone who does not fit into a mold is eschewed and somehow treated as less than human. But in Eskibahce, there are all kinds of crazies who are not only tolerated but also perhaps even loved because of their unusualness. Even “The Blasphemer,” as angry as he makes the local clergy, is allowed to yell his insults without penalty. In the hills above the town, there also dwells a homeless man known only as “the Dog.” With a frightful appearance which resulted in part from having his lips and tongue burned away by a hot iron, he cannot speak, and yet he is allowed to “trespass” amongst the graves (he would be arrested these days), and the townsfolk bring him alms for his sustenance.

Perhaps the most colorful character of the book is the local landlord, Rustem Bey. He’s the kind of guy you’re supposed to hate—the local capitalist who lives off the rent of his tenants. In spite of his relative wealth, however, he hardly has the imperious demeanor of an archbishop or a congressman. In fact, the locals, who, on their own, consider him a de-facto leader of the community, esteem him. Somewhat status-obsessed, he worries about appearing a fool in his countryside get-up, which includes a fez and two revolvers tucked into his belt.

It isn’t all paradise, though. Rustem Bey catches his wife, Tamara, sleeping with another man. Rustem Bey murders him, and takes Tamara to the town square to be stoned to death, which is the punishment for adultery according to Islamic law. The local imam, Abdulhamid Hodja, however, interrupts this orgy of righteousness and asks where the required four witnesses to the crime are. He has the disgraced wife, now gravely wounded, taken to his house—to be cared for mostly by his own wife, of course. Interesting in this and other episodes is the absence of any effective police force; the gendarmes are constantly in the town square playing backgammon (they didn’t have Dunkin Donuts yet), but the imam is capable, by virtue of his own authority, to tamp down the rabble, which includes some Christians who illicitly joined in the stoning.  Eventually Tamara recovers, but the stigma of her sin damns her to live out her days in the local brothel—run by a transsexual woman, no less—where she gives birth to several babies terminally ill with venereal diseases. She herself wastes away in the dim light of the house of hedonism, never actually having been divorced by her husband.

Rustem Bey, in the wake of this episode, leads a caravan to Smyrna and Istanbul in search of a new companion and brings back a mistress, Leyla Hanim, who he believes to be Circassian but who is actually Greek. Nevertheless, they live many years together happily with Leyla’s cat, Pamuk.

Still another girl is ordered to be shot in an “honor killing” when she is caught in flagrante delicta. Her father orders his second son to do the deed, who, having carried out the task, angrily washes his hands of the sin and heads for the hills, where he completes his life as an outlaw. One is tempted to stand in judgment, but similar servings of “justice” have been dished out in the West, too, and not as far into the past as we’d often like to think.

One crucial difference between the two religious communities of Eskibahce is in education. Abdulhamid Hodja—genteel, erudite, and devout—nonetheless educates the Muslim children only in reciting the first portion of the Koran in Arabic. There is no concern for their understanding the content, only for memorization. Reading, writing, and math are not undertaken. The Christians, however, learn to read and write. It is not the finest education but it goes some way in making a student self-sufficient. Karatavuk, seeing that his friend Mehmetcik can write, begs him to teach him, and so he is probably the only Muslim kid in the town who can do this—in the highly unusual scheme of the Turkish language written with Greek letters.

So here you have it, Eskibahce, a small place not without faults but relatively peaceful and with lots of colorful characters in it. Louis de Berniernes depicts a place that is relatively happy, a place I confess I wouldn’t mind living, honor killings aside. But while this small town is minding its own business, the bowels of the Orbis Terrarum are rumbling in the lead-up to the “Great War.” One little clue of this comes from the midnight oil that glows through the window shades at the home of Leonidas, the local teacher of the Christians. It was in the small hours of the morning that he would write his tracts, agitating for a restoration of the vast old Greek empire. Of this firebrand, de Bernieres writes: “He was possessed by beautiful visions of Constantinople restored to its place as capital of the Greek world, and, like all who have such beautiful visions, his were predicated on the absolute belief that his own people and his own religion and his own way of life were superior to others, and should therefore have their way. Such people, even as insignificant as Leonidas, are the motor of history, which is finally nothing but a sorry edifice constructed from hacked flesh in the name of great ideas.” Indeed, Leonidas comes to demonstrate that the line between a do-gooder and an evil-doer is very thin.

Gradually the pains of conflict and war make themselves felt even in quiet little places like Eskibahce. When the Armenians are sent on their death marches, the town loses a significant portion of its neighbors, including the local apothecary, with whom everyone got along. Incidentally, government bureaucrats determined racial classifications; one’s self-conception mattered not a wit, nor were interpersonal relationships respected. By means such as this organic communities are destroyed, leaving fewer and fewer protective barriers between each individual person and the nation-state.

Along with conflict comes the great sin of nationalism. The Ottoman Empire crumbles, leaving the contingents of various nationalities free to hate each other. The Patriarch in Constantinople declares the Orthodox to be “Greek” rather than Ottoman; the Greeks sharpen their swords in pursuit of the Golden Age of the Hellenic Empire; and various political power struggles in Istanbul revolve around the idea of Turkish nationalism, creating a cauldron of human stupidity that, interestingly, only the aforementioned “Dog” can emerge relatively unscathed, but only because he lived in caves like an animal. Maybe he wasn’t the animal, after all.

The author takes us to the front in World War I and doesn’t bother with glorifying it. One can be sure that de Berniernes will not be called upon to write recruitment commercials for the Army any time soon. Death, brutality, and disease—these are all described honestly. Strangely, though, the troops on opposing sides come to a kind of understanding. They cease to hate each other and only continue fighting because they are under orders to do so. Also astutely discussed are the economic perils of war. It is a beloved myth, at least in America, that war is good for the economy. The author shows us what a lie this is when he depicts a beautiful little town plunged into poverty not least because it has been deprived of its most capable workers, who’ve been conscripted to join the fight.

On this topic, an interesting note. Leonidas’s father, when he finds out the kind of bellicose intellectual company his son keeps, gives a white-hot lecture that echoes some of the more astute observations of certain economists:

“I’ll tell you something, my son. I’d have more respect for Alexander and you and your friends if you were bright enough to understand that it’s money and enterprise and brains that make the world turn around. All these military campaigns, and revolutions, and conspiracies, and talk about racial this and racial that…What do they bring? Bloodshed and disaster. If you want to be any use in the world, put money in your pocket.”

Ludwig von Mises couldn’t have said it better.

Not even the end of the “Great War” could signal a new quiet for Eskibahce, though. Greece, with its unquenchable thirst for territory she hadn’t possessed in centuries, after getting permission from English Prime Minister Lloyd George to occupy part of Western Turkey, tries to launch a full-scale war to retake the land. This fire is put out, but eventually it is agreed that all Greeks should live in Greece, and all Turks should live in Turkey. The government bureaucrats show up again to announce that many people will be forcibly removed from their homes. Caught in a bind in this is the beautiful girl Philothei, a Christian who had more or less been betrothed to the Muslim Ibrahim since early childhood. She visits Ibrahim, recently returned from the war front, to decide what to do, and a tragedy ensues that leaves Ibrahim tetched for the rest of his life. Meanwhile Father Christophoros leads the “Greeks” out of Eskibahce, carrying the beloved icon of the Virgin Mary while imploring the mercy of God. At this moment, his faith wavers, and like many characters in this story, he grapples with agnosticism in the wake of the horrors he has lived through. In this caravan is one character who, in her secret Greek ancestry, had come to be a living manifestation of the unity in this town that flourished between peoples from different sides of one of humanity’s most infamous political fault lines.

In place of the departed Christians come Muslims from Crete, who bring their own cheerful customs that the natives enjoy. But the town isn’t the same anymore. By this time Abdulhamid Hodja had died, and the new imam comes into town enacting fundamentalist changes and taking all the joy out of life. On many of his actions there is mixed reaction, but indignation is fairly universal when he destroys the Christian wine in the town with all the ferocity of a Baptist preacher.  The natives notice that Eskibahce lacks its former hilaritas, and after awhile even the Cretes get ground down into the dust of a newfound Puritanism.

Sometime after the Christians left, Mehmetcik, who had become an outlaw, returns to see his family but only finds strangers living in his home. Among the graves above town, having heard the call of a blackbird there, he meets his friend Karatavuk, to whom he explains that he is the infamous outlaw Red Wolf. By this time the townspeople had caught wind of his presence and were coming up the hill, rifles in hand. Karatavuk trades shirts with him and acts as a decoy so that his friend can escape, but not without price. Not recognizing him, Karatavuk’s own father, Iskander the Potter, shoots him in the arm.

Such an accident ends up, in its way, being providential. Because he can no longer use both hands, Karatavuk becomes the town’s letter writer rather than the new potter, writing Turkish with Roman letters as the new president, Kemal Ataturk, desired. In a certain sense here, things have come full circle. The young Muslim boy who, dissatisfied with memorizing things in a language he could not understand, and who forces his Christian friend to teach him to write, unexpectedly in adulthood becomes the town writer, and does it while living in the former home of the nitwitted Greek nationalist Leonidas. From his desk, in an unsent letter to his old fugitive friend, Karatavuk laments that we are all birds without wings, that we are stuck here on earth, and that because we are stuck, we are made to endure to unimaginable horrors.

It would be a depressing end to a beautifully written book were it not for this very important fact: Karatavuk’s utter dejection in the wake of the horrors of war is the necessary soil in which the virtues of peace, love and tolerance can once again take root. In his sorrow there is hope that future generations can learn to avoid the Big Ideas—converting the heathen and making the world safe for democracy, for instance—that constantly get mankind into trouble. The question is: What will it take for this lesson to be learned once and for all, so that no more communities are destroyed, no more forced exiles ensue, and no more innocent blood is spilled as the price of false certainty?

In Defense of the Wind Ensemble

When “classical music” or “serious music” is mentioned, one might think of the symphony orchestra, a string quartet, an English choir, or maybe even the opera, however debatable that may be. I’d be willing to bet that very few would think of wind ensemble music, and that is unfortunate. The wind ensemble gets lost, perhaps because when most people think of bands, they think of marching bands. They are not the same thing. The one is entertainment; the other, art—at least when there is a competent conductor to choose good repertoire. Confusion is magnified by the many town bands throughout the country who play Sousa marches out on the grass, while the war veterans say, “Thank God we killed all those Germans back in 1945; otherwise they would have taken over the world, and we’d have to listen to a bunch of stuff written by Hindemith.”

I once asked a high school band mother how good their director was. I was looking for musical things. She responded by praising his excellence at picking the right color guard moves and flags—and probably getting high scores at competitions, for all I remember. This is what serious band directors—the ones who care about music—are up against. I decided that, given some of my frank comments in the past about marching bands, it would probably be a good gesture on my part to help undue some of this ignorance, so I have come up with a list of some of my favorite wind band pieces.

I have to confess that I couldn’t take this little trip down Amnesia Lane with a dry eye. I miss a lot of this repertoire, and I miss playing the trumpet, which was one of my happier youthful follies. I can’t listen to the suites of Gustav Holst without feeling sixteen again, and I’m happy to have rediscovered this pleasure. It’s all thanks to my iPod, which has done much to break my musical listening habits—or ruts, if you prefer. In order to complete this list, I also had to rely on some rather amazing feats that Google could perform. Sometimes I could only remember some aspect of the program of a piece of music, and even that would get me the title of the piece and the name of the composer.

The wind band, as far as I can tell, had its genesis in the State, but I’m willing to overlook this since much progress has been made in its artistic development over the years. In fact, much music written more recently has focused on the evils rather than the glories of the government. Ironically, however, even the military pieces are better played by college and other non-military groups. Musicianship seems to be prohibited by the Department of Defense, with a few exceptions such as the U.S. Marine Band. Why am I politicizing this music? Well, I’m not. This music has always been politicized, and I’m just acknowledging that.

Some of those military pieces were written by England’s finest composers. Holst’s First and Second Military Band Suites are classics. The first suite actually went a long way in the early 20th century to convince other composers that serious music could in fact be written for the concert band. After this, it seems as if the floodgates opened.

Another English composer was called upon in 1937 to write a march for the coronation of King Edward VII. William Walton derived his title “Crown Imperial” from a phrase in William Dunbar’s poem “In Honour of the City of London.” It’s all English imperialist nonsense, of course, but it’s an inspiring form of nonsense that neither Ronald Reagan nor William Jennings Bryan could ever compete with. But I digress. As it turns out, Edward abdicated, and so this march was instead premiered as King George VI (the main character in “The King’s Speech”) was crowned. One waits with bated breath for a graduate student in musicology to outline stuttering in Walton’s compositional technique.

One of the virtues of the English march composers is their sense of melody. These pieces are not all just flag-waving; the trio section often features a theme worthy of an art song. Perhaps this is at least in part due to the influence that Johannes Brahms had on late 19th and early 20th century composers of that nation. Walton’s Crown Imperial arguably has one of the most beautiful trio sections of any of these marches, and its triumphant return at the end of the piece is enough to wet the pants even of the descendants of John Calvin.

I like these aforementioned pieces very much, but enough with Statism. The most special place in my heart is for wind band pieces that reflect what the government is really like rather than what it wants us to think. Yasuhide Ito’s symphonic poem, “Gloriosa” is a good place to start. Written in honor of Christians persecuted in Japan, it begins with a chant, which when I played it was one of my first exposures to Gregorian melody. I went to Catholic Mass every Sunday as a child, but I learned the Church’s music from Jewish musicologists and Southern Baptist band directors.

One of the really likable things about Ito’s composition is how the whole first movement grows out of the chant, even with such a violent story to tell. This reveals the fallacy in the belief that all music based on chant has to sound like a distant mooing sound. I’m curious about the particular melody that Ito uses. It’s most likely mode I, and it appears in none of my own chant books, which make use of a completely different mode II melody. Furthermore, Ito uses the older version (pre-1632) of the text of this hymn—O Gloriosa Domina, instead of O Gloriosa Virginum. I’m curious as to why all this is, and if it has anything to do with the particular story of these persecuted Japanese Christians. Granted, during the persecution in the Edo period, the melodies and texts (“Gloriosa” became “Gururiyoza”) of Christian song were being distorted, but this is actually a different problem. Slight melodic variation in chant is actually to be expected. If any chant scholars can chime in, please do.

The second movement of Ito’s piece, which springs from a flute solo, is also based on chant, with references to Dies Irae that are hard to miss. The percussion in particular add elements of the Far East into the mix. The third movement is based on a folk melody but doesn’t fail to embrace material from earlier in the composition. This work is an example of what good “inculturation” is all about. It is a natural comixture of disparate elements with an artistic impulse. Ito has given us a gift here.

In 1968 the Soviet Union and other members of the Communist Bloc invaded Czechoslovakia to put a halt to the liberalizing reforms taking place in that country that was stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Karel Husa, a native of the country in exile for failing to sufficiently suck up to the government, listened from America as the events were broadcast over the radio, and he was inspired to write “Music for Prague, 1968” to commemorate the oppression. This piece, having originally been written for concert band, has also been transcribed for orchestra. (How often does it happen in that sequence?) As Husa asks his forward to the piece to be included in all concert programs when it is performed, it might be best to let his own words suffice:

Three main ideas bind the composition together. The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, ‘Ye Warriors of God and His Law,’ a symbol of resistance and hope for hundreds of years, whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation. It has been utilized by many Czech composers, including Smetana in My Country. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by timpani and concludes in a strong unison Chorale. The song is never used in its entirety. The second idea is the sound of bells throughout; Prague, named also the City of Hundreds of Towers, has used its magnificently sounding church bells as calls of distress as well as of victory. The last idea is a motif of three chords first appearing very softly under the piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece, in flutes, clarinets, and horns. Later it appears at extremely strong dynamic levels, for example in the middle of the Aria movement. Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement (Fanfares), the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy (Aria), there is also a bird call at the beginning (piccolo solo), symbol of the liberty which the city of Prague has seen only for moments during its thousand years of existence.

Husa’s music makes use of ultramodern techniques, and if the story it tells were about anything else, it likely wouldn’t enjoy the popular acceptance that it has. Much as it reminds us of the evils of certain regimes, it’s also very easy to slide into that “Soviet Union bad, Western Democracy good” pigeonhole.

That is decidedly not the case with Daniel Bukvich’s Symphony No. 1 (“In Memoriam, Dresden 1945”).  I first got to know this piece from a college roommate, whose high school had performed it a few years before. Written as a master’s thesis, Bukvich uses, of all things, a favorite chord of Duke Ellington’s—C, D-flat, E, and G. While there is no revolutionary intent in his program, the music depicts the bombing of Dresden in 1945 by Allied forces which killed tens of thousands of German civilians, a consequence of the commodification of entire nation-states into war machines. My roommate told me that emotions ran in every which direction the night his band performed it.

Not to be lost in any conversation about this piece is Bukvich’s gift for melody. Listen to the French Horns about halfway through. The composer also does an excellent job of harmonizing modern compositional techniques with stuff that a lot of people would, I suppose, call “regular music.” The human voice is used in addition to the instruments, percussion recalls the bombs falling, and there are even aleatoric techniques in this piece that transcend gimmickry. After the devastation, a flute completes the piece, sighing onomatopoeically.

Much band music that is not written about the State is written about God. Two pieces come to my mind, Charles Ives’s band setting for From Greenland’s Icy Mountains. I think that’s the title, anyway; I can’t find it anywhere. Ives wrote some good music when he wasn’t distracted by surface impressions.

The other composition is Fisher Tull’s “Introit,” which is based on the famous hymn tune Rendez a Dieu. A straightforward beginning takes a surprising turn into some rather advanced techniques until the fun, if predictable, conclusion. An Introit has a flexible definition I suppose. It is the opening chant of the Catholic Mass; it could also be understood as a call to worship. So Tull’s inclusion of bells, even a reference to the Westminster chimes, is fitting. I’m a sucker for pieces like this. One of my conductors used to call me “Chorale Boy.” It’s no wonder I ended up where I did.

One more piece about God, this one by Alfred Reed. I only have one recording of this work, Russian Christmas Music. It’s a terrible CD, but I can’t stop listening to it because the music itself is so inspiring. Fueled by folksong and the Russian Orthodox Liturgy, Reed composed this work at the last minute for a concert in Denver, CO in 1944 which aimed at improving American-Russian relations. By concert band standards, it’s a humongous work and is perhaps most demanding in what it asks of the ensemble’s musicianship rather than in what it requires as far as virtuosity goes. This is a hallmark of much substantial music.

The poet Dylan Thomas is possibly most famous for his “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I wonder how many know that Elliot del Borgo has composed a piece based on this poem. As I recall, it was commissioned by a high school in Pennsylvania in memory of a deceased student. Fleeting references to Ein Feste Burg punctuate an indignantly petulant texture that conjures up an unwillingness to surrender to death. Del Borgo uses too much percussion, perhaps, but it is best to keep them occupied lest they be a distraction with their paper airplanes in rehearsal.

I have discussed God and death (which encompasses the State) entirely too much in this entry. Maybe it’s time for a little fun. Everyone loves the Lord of the Rings, and as it turns out Johan de Mei has written a wind symphony on that theme. This is not his only work for band; he also wrote a “Big Apple” Symphony. Use this piece to cleanse your palette from all that heavy stuff that I subjected you to. Unlike “Flight of the Bumblebee,” this music does not suffer artistic damage from its levity. One can indulge with a clear conscience.

There is so much music in the world, and it’s impossible to get to know it all. That’s a mixed blessing, with alternating feelings of discouragement at the largeness of the task, and then delight at the little surprises that are inevitable. There are all kinds of unharvested corners of the music world for all of us. Discovering them is one of the capital joys of my life. I hope you have found  something edifying in this little exploration of wind ensemble music. And best wishes to all the directors out there who have to deal with the color guard moms.

Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea

Arnold Schoenberg was a hated man. This is the consequence of being a pioneer, an original thinker, his big mouth notwithstanding. I’m not trying to crown him with infallibility, but only to give credit where it’s due. Our culture loves the yellow journalism technique of painting with broad strokes of sycophancy or character assassination, depending upon the frenzy of the moment. There is little room for careful discussion.

We live by a kind of cult of personality that obsesses on surface details, and I’m not sure it’s anything new. Human history is a monument to the permanence of stupidity, and that’s largely a fact that has to be accepted. With this backdrop, the prophets and the geniuses can look like dreadful fools. I prefer to see them as heroes. It takes great dedication to turn one’s head into the wind in the hopes that a massive effort will yield the tiniest result, the slightest movement of mankind away from absolute buffoonery. Alas, most of us would rather admire a fireman that climbs a tree to rescue the neighbor’s cat.

Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on a wide range of musical and other topics. The title is well-chosen: His central thought revolves around the essence of the idea. He shuns superficial appearances in fanatical fashion, to the point of overstating his case at times. This is forgivable. After all, what philosopher hasn’t overstated his case? Schoenberg is concerned with what the composer has to say: What is his thematic material? How does he apply it? How does he develop it? To Schoenberg, style grows naturally out of an idea. It is backwards, in his mind, to sit down and say, “I want to write a piece in the style of early 20th century France, or in the style of Anton Heiller.” This leads to hollow music making. I’m reminded of Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” or the churchy ear candy of Dom Lorenzo Perosi.

Schoenberg’s obsession with the musical idea itself is refreshing in the age of music that the author himself describes as having limited psychological appeal; music that “goes right to the feet.” There is nothing wrong with vapid music if it is played in the dance club or the gym; the problem is that too much music is vapid. The head of the Second Viennese School, however, runs a bit off course at places, in my opinion, because of this admirable core belief in the idea. For instance, he writes about the “primitive ears” who prefer to relish tone colors over other musical matter. I guess we know what he thought of the music of Olivier Messiaen! Related to this is his strange idea about instrumentation and orchestration. While he doesn’t argue for anything coming close to a total absence of colorful variety, he calls for a slimmed-down orchestra, one that gets rid of “useless” instruments that have a limited scalar, dynamic, or artistic compass. He asks whether the bassoon, for example, has ever been anything but comical. I’m more inclined to agree with Ernest M. Skinner that the bassoon can assume any character. The Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird comes to mind as an instance in which it is something other than funny.

All the same, Schoenberg claims that the orchestra’s power comes from its variety of tone color, and he cites the pipe organ as an example to prove this. Baroque organs, which were built on largely homogenous choruses, were not powerful, but Romantic organs, which were conceived with solo voices in mind, can knock the walls down. (Organ aficionados will relish the ironical choice of Schoenberg’s words that “loudness is achieved through mixture.”)  This is completely on Cloud Kookooland, and it’s pretty safe to say that Schoenberg was not acquainted with the research of Skinner, who discusses this subject in his book The Composition of the Organ. It was progress in the ability to develop higher wind pressures in organs, and therefore more largely-scaled pipes, that have allowed more modern instruments to blow off the archbishop’s mitre with a middle C. None of this is to say that I find Schoenberg’s streamlined orchestra to be an attractive idea; he simply chose the wrong example in arguing for what he sees as a moderate approach to this reform.

Schoenberg also has a strange approach when it comes to modality. He sees the efforts of late 19th and early 20th century composers to write in modes to be useless, an adoption of an outdated musical technique. To his credit, though, this might be the only point in the book when he caves in to the temptation to Whiggism. Schoenberg thinks this attitude is based on progress, but it really seems like it’s actually based upon a misapprehension of the modes. Implying that the half-step relationships of a scale are the only ones capable of establishing a tonal center in certain stereotypical ways, he says that all the ancient modes can be reduced to two: major and minor. And yet, he forfeits his argument when, in a later essay, he rightly states that the establishment of a key can be a difficult thing that is often only achieved by restating the tonic until it can be perceived as home base. Can’t the same repetition be used in modal constructions? Is E not the final of Pange lingua? Is it really just a melody in C Major that ends on the third? I don’t think so.

Naturally, Schoenberg spills a great deal of ink on the concept of “atonality,” a term which he disliked. He takes issue with those who claim he was a revolutionary; he saw his music, rather, as an outgrowth of everything that came before it. It might seem preposterous to those obsessed with initial impressions, but it makes perfect sense. Think of Hans von Bulow’s reaction to the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “If that is music, it makes Tristan sound like Haydn.” The assertion that a new piece of music is aural nonsense has been a favorite game of the stodgy for a least five centuries, and it is useless. Moreover, if by “atonality” we mean music that lacks a key, we are describing a lot of music that existed long before Arnold Schoenberg. Tonality, like metrical music, might well prove to be a passing fad in music history, in the long run. Schoenberg cites some examples of dissonance in history—Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” and Beethoven’s Great Fugue. I would add certain measures of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali to that list, and one could make some very powerful arguments that in Bach’s music tonality was not always front and center. So much for revolution.

Schoenberg takes the time to discuss formal considerations viz. “atonality.” In older music, sections were often demarcated by modulations; in the absence of key centers, other methods of formal articulation are needed. This seems to him to be the primary problem to be solved with the new style of music, and not any notion that dissonance is against the “laws of nature.” Gravity pulls us downward, Schoenberg reminds us, but airplanes carry us upward. Planes are contrary to nature, yet they use the laws of nature. This is in addition to the fact that even the most remote dissonance is somewhere on the overtone series, which is the “law of nature” of harmony. Moreover, in Schoenberg’s music, dissonance is not a thing in itself, not necessarily a manner of poetic expression, but rather a result of the musical ideas. It’s a far cry from Charles Ives going back to his scores and adding crunchy chords in order to make his music sound “modern.”

Schoenberg’s writing comes from the fire in his belly. He might be a logician, but he is not the cold logician that many cartoon writers claim he is. The proof of this is in his rejection of the many efforts of Hauer and other theorists to codify the musical language of the Second Viennese School. Most music majors have had to make at least one matrix in their careers, writing a tone row and sticking to it slavishly. It feels more like calculus than music. This is not Schoenberg, who was more comparable to Palestrina, who never hesitated to change a note to make a passage work. These men are music-makers, not pipe-layers. This truth is not convenient for those who brandish their historicist clubs in the dungeons of what passes for music criticism these days, and many listeners, hungry for an excuse to dislike Schoenberg’s music, are all too quick to latch on to these careless ideas rather than to listen to the music from the inside out, focusing on the ideas rather than the surface impressions.

It is enough to be an innovator in musical language, but as it turns out Schoenberg was even more, as he invented a new system of musical notation which, as far as I know, has not really been adopted. With three broadly-spaced lines, it’s reminiscent of the early efforts at diastematic notation. Exact pitches are notated by placing noteheads directly adjacent to or away from the lines, with the additional help of slashes that further clarify a note’s position. Using this technique allows the composer to notate a much wider range in an equal vertical space, and in many ways it might be superior to the standard five-line staff. But I can’t see it ever being adopted. As it is, string players don’t like to play in flat keys; how will we ever convince everyone to completely learn a new notation system, even just for modern music? Nonetheless, these efforts show the fertility of Schoenberg’s mind; if he were just a rabble-rouser he wouldn’t have bothered with a project such as this.

There are other things to admire about Schoenberg, too. He was certainly an astute observer. His thinking on vibrato reminds me of Lilli Lehmann and Joseph Joachim, both of whom used vibrato as an ornament and did not indulge in the “goat-like bleating” that Schoenberg rails against. He has interesting thoughts on the relationship of the music to the text as well: While one might (might…) be able to accuse Handel of word-painting at a superficial level, Schoenberg is more concerned with more hidden relationships between the music and the text, aspects that might not be apparent at first blush. I’m reminded of the work of certain chant scholars in this regard, who find definite relationships between the text and the music that are missed by those who go at the problem with the Baroque model in mind. Then there is the question of the downbeat. From Bach, Schoenberg says, he learned disregard for the strong beat of the measure. How many performances have been ruined by a continuous assault on the downbeat? Schoenberg offers a remedy for this tendency: aiming for the “center of gravity” of a phrase. There are debates about whether the melody or the rhythm is primary in music; Messiaen, for instance, says that any melody will always have rhythm and therefore that rhythm is primary, but does this mean we should forget the line? Rhythm is a method of organization or articulation and not in all cases the primary thing. Schoenberg asks us to remember the melodic line, and I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. It’s a pretty reasonable response to an argument that is more or less myopic.

As one would expect, Schoenberg takes some time at the end of the book to comment on several composers. He loved Mahler and thought him a saint; hated Stravinsky and regarded him a panderer; offers well-measured praise for George Gershwin. He sees in Brahms not the pure classicist but the progressive who was a master of the irregular phrase. The book wraps up with some comments on social and political matters. At the end of it all, Schoenberg, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Austria, seems to have been in a very healthy, a-political place. Politics, after all, is for lesser men.

On many of the subjects that Schoenberg takes on, one can quibble, or even boldly object, and I in fact don’t find myself in complete agreement with him. In one thing, however, I hope there will be unanimity: Arnold Schoenberg was a true artist. By this I’m not necessarily referring to the way his work turned out, but rather the spirit in which it was created. He was a man who had the need, the urge to create. There was the desire, as he put it, to let off the “internal pressure” of a gestating work. More than that—fundamentally, even—he wanted to say something, to create a thing of beauty: Not just to pander to stylistic expectations, not to sell records, not to get in tight with a conductor or an orchestra manager with an agenda, but to make music. That is, after all, the vocation of the musical artist. We could do far worse in finding a role model.