Musings from the Bunker 12/16/20
Good morning! THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY’S WORD OF THE YEAR Last week I shared The Oxford English Dictionary “word of the year” for 2020 (actually a list of words). Typically, only a single word is chosen—one that generally is a newly coined word that captures the news, technological advances and/or the zeitgeist of the time. In prior years there were separate words for the US and the UK, reflective of the great quote, “two countries separated by a common language” (often attributed to George Bernard Shaw but occasionally also attributed to Oscar Wilde). Here is a running list, that takes us through the early days of social networking, climate change, vaping, and politics.: 2004 chav 2005 podcast 2006 carbon neutral 2007 locavore 2008 hypermilling (in the UK it was credit crunch) 2009 unfriend 2010 refudiate 2011 squeezed middle 2012 GIF 2013 selfie 2014 vape 2015 [smile emoji] 2016 post-truth 2017 youthquake 2018 toxic 2019 climate emergency At least a few seem not to have taken hold as much as the writers of the OED might have expected. What is “chav” and do people really use “locavore” to describe people who eat only locally sourced food? And “youthquake” seems like a weird word that journalists tried to coin for an explosion of young people engaging with the world, which developed little traction. I think the list is amusing but hit and miss. But whatever you do, just because I refudiate the above list, don’t accuse me of being a chav. THOUGHTS ON THE BOOK OF THE WEEK Last week I read Chasing Chopin, by Annik LaFarge, a gift from Martine Singer, who shares my love for classical music. I learned a number of things from this book (subtitled “A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions”), including that Martine and the author know a helluva lot more about classical music than I do. But I found the following interesting pearls:
I had never truly appreciated the depth with which Chopin is revered in his native Poland. It was interesting to learn more of his complex romance with George Sand (the famous French female novelist who dressed and in many ways comported as a man) and the intellectual scene of 19th century Paris.
Did you know that Poland had the first written constitution in Europe?
The book’s best part for me was the discussion of the sad history of Poland, which due to its unfortunate geographic location found itself pushed and pulled from war to war, always invaded and borders always adjusted, partitioned and readjusted by its stronger neighbors—principally Prussia, Russia and Austro-Hungary. At one point it was even partitioned out of existence. [I recall once watching a time-lapse of the borders of Europe over the centuries. Poland expanded and contracted like a lung in the center of Europe, oscillating east and west depending upon the politics of the time]
Chopin was innovative in the use of rhythm. One of his most interesting techniques is the use the tempo rubato. Lizst called it the “rule of irregularity.” Rubato comes from the Italian verb rubare, or “to steal.” It is the concept of stolen time, where one can borrow time in one place and place it back in another, hanging on a phrase and then rushing to catch up later. It is described as where “the performer has some discretion to liberate notes from the mathematics that govern a piece of music…Rubato is permission to, at least temporarily, thwart time, to put your own signature on a phrase.” It isn’t a great leap to imagine that this concept eventually led to improvisation and jazz!
The great pianist Paderewski, the Prime Minister of the democratic Poland that existed through the First World War, likened the tempo rubato to the spirit of the Polish people, eluding discipline and rejecting submission to the metronome (i.e., the ruling government of the moment). LaFarge said that the audacity of a country choosing a pianist to rule the country would be like the U.S. choosing Yo-Yo Ma as President. [I think the famous cellist could have done better these past four years…]
There is a thorough account in the book of the genesis of the pianoforte and how the mechanics of the modern piano allowed far more nuance to be placed on each note (and the speed at which each note could recover and be played again), eventually eclipsing the harpsichord and clavichord as the keyboard of choice. As interesting as noting that the piano offers the pianist the flexibility to adjust volume, repetition, and reverberation, is the mechanisms by which clever artisans were able to do so.
This is a great study of Chopin, Sand, and the plight of Poland through history. Its discussion of the music—most notably the funeral march—more complex than we know it to be—got into a bit more detail than I could handle. But at 160 pages, it’s a pleasant, unusual and a quick read. BEING ON ZOOM CALLS I find Zoom calls a bit disconcerting. It’s funny that, as time goes on, I keep thinking that the people I work with get younger and younger. Then I get on a Zoom call and am forced to acknowledge that, I “wow, I’m a lot older than these guys—are they still in high school?” This brings the sad realization that I’m just getting older. I think it might be time to exercise the “hide self view” option. MASK OBSERVATIONS Have you noticed a couple walking down the street, one wearing a mask but not the other? It seems it’s usually the man who stands ruggedly and steadfast against logic and science! And while we’re at it, why do 10% of the mask wearers seem not to understand that the exhalation of breath comes from both the mouth and the nose? Happy day, Glenn