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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: December 2008

Welcome 2009

Thanks to my resourceful friend Richard, our high school learning pizza was peppered with all sorts of zany toppings. One month we'd become engrossed in the study of biorhythms, watching anxiously how our dating lives correlated with sinusoidal oscillations, only to ditch them for some other novelty a few weeks later - like the French revolutionary calendar, which we used with the revolutionary zest for a number of months while filling our lexical purse with exotic coins of a new temporal currency. Good bye April, June, August and October - Hello Vendemiaire, Frimaire, Fructose and Messidor. What a welcome relief from the drudgery of our High School curriculum! In those days of unripe raspberries, we had also contrived a cult of the number nine and ascribed to it powers stretching well beyond the usual numerological jurisdiction.

With the advent of college, most of this folly went away, but my affinity to the number nine prevailed. After all it is the highest single digit in the decimal system and our planetary system used to have nine planets, until astronomers started to mess with it. But there is one peculiarity singling the number nine out, which astronomers can do nothing about - and it comes from music.

Let's take a look at the number of symphonies that various famous composers wrote:

1 - Grieg, Wagner
2 - Liszt, Weber
3 - Rimskij-Korsakov, Rachmaninov
4 - Brahms, Berlioz
5 - Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
6 - Tchaikowski
7 - Sibelius, Prokofiev
8 - Schulhoff
9 - Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Dvorak, Schubert
15 - Shostakovich
41 - Mozart

Even if you have no appreciation for distributions of random variables, you can see that there is something disturbingly non-random going on here. And it is not that I padded the list of "Niners" with some second rate fiddlers. They are all Masters of the Trade, Beethoven and Mahler being arguably sans pareil. The history of music is thus confirming that Nine is indeed the number to be revered.

Now that we are about to enter the Year of Nine, I hope its magic powers will manifest themselves. Welcome!

Financial Quicksands

Quicksand is a region filled with fine granular matter (sand, clay, dirt) whose lower layers are richly saturated with liquid (water, brine). The lubricated particles underneath lose most of their natural friction and become unable to support any significant weight. Since the liquid does not usually reach all the way to the top, the surface of the area looks dry, innocent and safe, wherein lies its danger. While the ground may easily support twigs and minor pebbles, do not dare to step on it. A minor change in the stress on the quicksand will cause a drastic decrease in its viscosity, and before you know it, your body will get a ringside seat (or rather a ringside bed) to a process known as sinking in a non-Newtonian fluid - an experience well worth avoiding.

As we recapitulate our economy in 2008, the words "financial quicksands" come to mind as a suitable epithet. Tons after tons of cheap credit that sloshed into the system over the past decade thanks to tireless efforts of Maestro Greenspan have drastically changed the support characteristics of the once solid economic ground. Liquidity, much like fire, is a good servant, but a bad Master and it looks increasingly inevitable that our hubris is going to get a much needed lesson in elementary physics of colloid hydrogels. On the outside, the venerable financial firms live up to their name and appear firm and solid, but when you step closer - watch out! One by one, like a flock of strayed vacationers, once mighty powerhouses and household names are disappearing underneath the treacherous surface.

The one thing to know about quicksands is that panic will make things worse, usually much worse. The more you flounder in them, the faster you sink. After cruising through much of the credit deterioration in 2007 and 2008 with poker faces on, Team Bernanke&Paulson made a series of panicky moves culminating in their bursting into Congress one Friday night in September and dramatically demanding an outlandish bailout to avert an impending doom, although just a few short weeks before that the same power-duo blithely maintained that our economy is fundamentally solid.

Pumping water into ground does not usually make quicksand safer, and neither does pouring more easy money into bottomless pits of institutions' balance sheets, especially if their overpaid leaders display all the business acumen of a pack of autistic possums licking poisonous mushrooms. Was the slapdash sweep of the struggling companies under the governmental rug supposed to calm anybody? Why don't we just put up a huge sign over the Wall Street: "The firmness of this ground is now guaranteed by the full reputation and integrity of the Bush administration". I am not sure what we are smoking, but do we really realize that the reins of our economy are being turned over to the team who gave us the Katrina Debacle?

Fortunately, the nights of Bush are numbered. So here is hoping that Obama's Team will think hard before dispatching whales of money into voracious financial maelstroms, that they will have the balls to stand up to the credit junkies, who think that borrowing for your happiness is the coolest thing since the Nasdaq bubble. Here is hoping that they will have enough common sense to prune the dead industrial branches, rather than put more gaudy Christmas trinkets on them; that they will steer resources from investment casinos to companies producing useful goods and green energy and in doing so drain some water (and hot air) out of the system. Only then we'll be able to slowly reclaim the firm ground on which to build the next recovery - not only for our economy, but also for our beleaguered currency, so people can earn their living and save it without fear that their nest eggs and rainy day funds will be nuked by the greed of clueless banksters. It will be a bitter medicine, but if we don't swallow it, we will have it shoved down out throats in the financial wastelands.


Brotherhoods of the Incompetent

There are no pikes in the Czech political pond. No aquatic predators to thin out the herd. Consequently, the limp parliamentary waters are infested with oily, poorly adapted and anachronistic critters, whose mental fitness would give Darwin second thoughts about his theory.

Through the vagaries of post-communist evolution, the political spectrum in the western half of former Czechoslovakia gradually reduced to two major parties, the Social and the Civic Democrats, not counting a cohort of dwarfish also-rans. In the heady days following the dismantling of communist regime, the nation lifted its eyes to strong leaders with sparkle and erudition, and Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman at the helm of the two major parties seemed to fit that bill. Whatever their shortcomings were, they spoke in complete sentences and class and decorum were concepts not entirely alien to them.

But the euphoria of the velvet revolution soon evaporated, high flying ideals gave way to the teats of imported consumerism, and whatever remained of sound arguments on the political scene was quickly replaced with lowbrow bickering. The new leading tandem - Mirek Topolanek (Civic Democrats) and Jiri Paroubek (Social Democrats) - leaves much to be desired in the field of political finesse. The tone of their rhetoric has been relegated several floors down into the musty cubicles of the linguistic basement. Their causes are furthered by ideological peristalsis. And worst of all, they have gotten so enmeshed in their own web of politicking, petty demands, oozing provincialism, power haggling and personal attacks that at the end of one of the critical parliamentary sessions, on December 19, their parties maneuvered themselves into declining support for all foreign missions of the Czech Army, including those supporting NATO activities. Reneging on military obligations because of amateurish political miscalculation is so embarrassing that most major media dubbed their legislative boondoggles the Black Friday of the Czech politics.

It is a fact from elementary psychology that a brotherhood of the incompetent is the most enduring of all human fellowships. Industrious and capable people can make it on their own. It is the lazy and incompetent who have the strongest motive to bond and associate - because for them networking is a survival skill. Prime example was the Communist Party, which existed for long 40 years despite its nearly absolute economic ineptitude. The army of listless apparatchiks may not have been the sharpest collective knife in the drawer, but they stuck together so tenaciously that their massive cartel loomed over my college years with a distinctly perennial aura.

In the outcome befitting the Theater of the Absurd, almost twenty years after the collapse of the original Brotherhood of the Incompetent, the Czech lands are governed (or stifled) by a pair of kindred abominations. By two parties, on the surface entrenched in their respective dogmas, but in reality thoroughly amalgamated and infiltrated by maladroit, short-sighted and politically incestuous hermaphrodites. Their pre-holiday parliamentary disgrace was a sneering mockery of democracy. The land of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and Vaclav Havel deserves better.


Man is the Master of All Creation, on land, in the sea and in the air. Homo sapiens is supposed to rule over the brutes underendowed with gray matter. But when you look at our physical abilities, we come off as rather unimpressive species and, unless you count spell checking among survival skills, most of us wouldn't stand much chance in the wilderness. Sure, we can get by in the department of running and swimming, but our performance doesn't come even close to the explosive charge of cheetahs or efficient elegance of dolphins. You could argue that, on a good day, Michael Phelps might keep up pace with a school of malaria stricken tuna fish, but the sad truth is that if there ever was an Animal Kingdom Olympics, we'd rank somewhere between San Marino and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Our record deteriorates even further when it comes to flying. Douglas Adams once observed that "The knack [of flying] lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss". Well, after several thousand years of hectic evolution, we have to admit that this "knack" misses us rather completely. We cannot fly, period. The few of us who try quickly realize that they don't have much choice for direction and usually land with an ungraceful plop and a lesson that gravity has a deadly downward bias. Such unbecoming manner of flying may elicit patronizing smiles on the faces of common pigeons but does not really lead to much enjoyment. Let's face it - we are developing a pretty strong case of wing envy.

But hey - what about blimps, hot air balloons, choppers, airplanes, or space rockets? Doesn't all that aerospace junk count as flying? Well, I don't think so. Our body itself doesn't really sail through the high airs. Rather it is some metallic cylinder that does the moving and we are merely packed in it like a bunch of wretched sardines, watching our fellow packees sip orange juice from plastic cups. The human body, relative to the casing is in perfect stillness. Our senses do not get that palpable guttural experience of being integral part of the rapidly changing perspective.

But do not despair. If you do desire to feel the comb of fresh air tousling your hairdo while flying - but are not quite ready to commit your fragile skeleton to the whims of hang gliding - there is hope for you and it comes in the form of ziplines. A series of taut metallic strings zipping inconspicuously through a canopy of a rainforest near you. On the island of Antigua, I succumbed to temptation of stately trees and not having any prior experience decided to wing it. A lovely attendant helped me into a harness, clipped me onto the wire above my helmet and before I knew it, my body was moving through the air in an unusually horizontal way. Experiencing the surrounding vegetation in a fly-thru mode wasn't quite what the birds do for a living, but it was pretty damn close.

The chauffeur who drove our little group from the Cruise Terminal to the adventure site fell into a bit of aviatory delusion himself. In the spirit of free wheeling Caribbean driving, he treated the narrow island roads as if they were La Guardia runways and throughout our trip kept barreling on roughly at the speed of sound, except for the stop signs where he lightly tapped the brake pedal, in apparent deference to the local traffic Gods.

But this bout of non-canonical driving was well worth it. Flying liberates more than you'd expect. Some of the motion challenged folks were visibly overcome with the loss of solid ground and the dizzying zips that their senses were thoroughly unaccustomed to and consequently exhibited surprising proficiency in high pitch wailing and squealing and squawking and howling and whooping and scads of other sounds which English doesn't even have a name for, but which carried for miles around nonetheless. I haven't inspected the vocabulary of Antiguan parrots, but I bet you two sleeping bags of golden coins that the one American phrase they all know by heart is "Oh my God! Oh My God!" rendered in a perfect Southern accent.


The ABC of Music

When you say "Beethoven", most people will recall the heroic oeuvres that he wrote mostly in his 30s and early 40s (1800-1812): Appassionata, Fidelio, Eroica, the Fifth Symphony, the Emperor Concerto, the Egmont Overture. This is the Beethoven people know and admire. Beethoven the Rebel. The feisty smith slamming his hammer mercilessly against the red-hot spears and swords of his army. The disheveled genius stubbornly banging his fist on the gates of fate. The unruly God casting globes of fire from the rough-hewn seat of his Olympus.

But hidden from a view of most concert-goers lies another Beethoven. The prophet strapped to the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel and vigorously arguing with himself. The explorer hashing his way through jungles of counterpoint to the Spring of Humanity. The wizard waving his magic wand with a forgiving smile. The Late Beethoven - devoting the last decade of his life (1818-1827) to towering monuments that Romain Rolland dubbed the Cathedral of Music: the last five Piano Sonatas, Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the last five String Quartets.

While Beethoven the Rebel absorbed Mozart and Hayden and paved the way for Schubert and Brahms, Late Beethoven skipped the century and pointed directly to Mahler and Stravinsky. While the Rebel compositions resemble crowd pleasing Blockbuster movies, the works of Late Beethoven shoot for different audiences - they are the artsy movies lining up for Oscar nominations in independent theaters.

Late Beethoven is like Moses of Charlton Heston descending from Mount Sinai completely transformed. Such fundamental sea change of mindset didn't come easy, of course. The two periods are separated by a punishing desert and crossing it entailed more than a fair share of suffering. In 1812-1817, Beethoven's creative stream had nearly dried out. He was plagued by illnesses, fatigue, writer's block, romantic fiascos and to top it off he became involved in a drawn out custody battle for his nephew Carl. But - much like Moses - he did reach the other side of the desert. An oasis with a potent well, where, almost imperceptibly, his Muses came back. Not roaring like hungry lions. Silently, like flowers opening to full bloom on dried out branches. You can hear them in the second movement of Piano Sonata #28, op. 101.

Many of these compositions could be considered pinnacles of the Western art. Supreme achievements of Man. All, except for three pieces that seem so unfathomable and otherworldly that they could easily have been written in heaven and then merely channeled down to us through Beethoven's Genius. When arranged alphabetically, they constitute the ABC of Music, its creme de la creme.

A for Arietta from Piano Sonata #32 in C minor, op. 111
B for Benedictus from Missa Solemnis in D major, op. 123
C for Canzona di Ringraziamento from String Quartett #15 in A minor, op. 132

Ad A: Arietta is the slow movement of his last sonata; a carefully thought out farewell to the musical form that he dearly loved and that he graced with 32 Masterpieces. Beethoven the Rebel would certainly cast his good bye in an ivory shattering grandiose Finale, but Late Beethoven has much more delicate instruments in his toolbox and he is going to use the finest of them to chisel out a timeless reflection of piano's future. Arietta starts with an introduction of a slow and surprisingly dull theme. But if you can stand its presentation, you will be richly rewarded by watching it grow into a resplendent and uniquely shaped orchid. One phrase after another, the musical ugly duckling winds through more and more complex and melodically intricate variations, its rhythm capers into playful syncopation, its harmony takes on daring hues and iridescent colors until it bursts in a scintillating apotheosis of creativity. After such Tour de Force any third movement would be anticlimactic. His 32 pieces long journey through the world of piano sonatas had to end here. Its Swan Song may have had only two movements, but it put forth a powerful message: Artist's ultimate mission is finding beauty where there seems to be none. Taking a chunk of common clay and breathing life into it.

Ad B: If we ever send a space probe into the distant reaches of our Galaxy and include a recordable medium with samples representing the endeavors of the human race, Missa Solemnis should be featured as one of its crowning achievements. The Parthenon of Beethoven's Solemn Mass consists of five monumental pillars, each supporting a Universe of its own. After the warm opening of Kyrie, the cathedral reverberates with the massive sheets of sound arching both over majestic Gloria and monumental Credo, the latter meticulously detailed over the complex story of the New Testament. A man who thought about God long and hard, presents his final testimony. But there is no place for liturgical pomp in it, the musical score says it unambiguously: "It came from the heart, may it return to the heart". With the afterglow of the double fugue of "Et vitam venturi saeculi" still lingering, Beethoven retreats into a private chapel for the communion with his Creator: Sanctus and Benedictus. We descend a spiral staircase into a simple carved wood confessional. You can barely hear the subdued chorus of monks in brown capes, more whispering than singing. With the lights dimmed and volume turned down, he greets the spirit descending from above, like a stray ray of light filtering through a skylight. The opening violin solo glittering against the hushed contours of the choir must be one of the most mystical episodes in the musical literature. Truly religious. Not in the way Megachurches in Ohio are. Much more subtly. Beethoven's Benedictus is appealing to the instinctual belief hard wired into our souls that something out there watches over us; that there is more to this Universe than the Laws of Physics.

Ad C: If Missa Solemnis is an exploration of God, the last five String Quartets are explorations of Man. Long locked in a solitary castle of his deafness, Beethoven embarks on an aesthetic expedition to hidden folds and recesses of human mind. You will find the aging Master roaming seclusively the Gardens of Imagination and climbing the Peaks of Existential Vertigo with the Plains of Futility lying deep below. You get to smell their rarefied air if you ever make it through the unrelenting fortissimo of the first 122 measures of the Great Fugue. Naturally, this perplexing odyssey was long utterly misunderstood and neglected, and it took some 80 years before it was resumed by Gustav Mahler, whose nine symphonies ventured into landscapes so similar that one is tempted to think of them as richly orchestrated sequels to Beethoven's last quartets. The Quartet in A minor is last but one in this series, written shortly after the Great Fugue, whose thin mountain air lingers throughout its five movements. Here, far away from the bustling cities of the secular world, there is little need for posturing. Canzona di Ringraziamento is a slow movement and one can infer from its subtitle that it was written as an expression of gratitude to unspecified deities for surviving a near fatal illness. And it is just that - a thanksgiving. If you listen to it in the depth of night, the long notes of its uninterrupted flow will reveal that there are many layers to a human soul. There is a layer of words, then there is a layer of tones, and beneath it, miles below the surface, there rests a layer where even the tones are too concrete. The layer of sincerity and pure emotion. That is the kind of silk Canzona is sewn of. A little postcard from the postmelodic land.

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