MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Elena Dubinets, Russian Composers Abroad

Russian Composers Abroad

The much-anticipated new book by the eminent musicologist and artistic programming genius Elena Dubinets has just been published: Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned. I had the honor of contributing one of the cover blurbs for this study of a century of Russian émigré composers (especially from the 1970s on) and diasporic identities.

As Vice President of Artistic Planning and Creative Projects for Seattle Symphony, Elena Dubinets not only played a decisive role in shaping that institution — its international profile grew significantly under her tenure — but left a mark the American orchestral field generally.

To Seattle’s loss, Dubinets left the SSO just before the pandemic and has only recently embarked on a new path as Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic. The LPO is going through an exciting period of transition as it returns to live performances under its new Chief Conductor, Edward Gardner.

Highly recommended!

Filed under: book recs, music news

Tolstoy Together: War and Peace

I’m a big fan of A Public Space’s online book club. Recently, APS began hosting an encore club to reread War and Peace with Yiyun Li, author of Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace.

For reference, here are some quick links:

All of Yiyun Li’s daily posts are here; perspectives on the issue of translation, historical context, Tolstoy as a stage director, etc., here and here.

From A Public Space:

#TolstoyTogether | September 15 – December 8 
An Online Book Club—Free and Open to All 

The Schedule. We will read together daily for 85 days. A gentle schedule: 12-15 pages a day, around 30 minutes, that can provide an anchor this fall, when transitions bring hope, thrill, and sometimes uncertainty. Find the reading schedule here.

How It Works. The book club is free and open to all. Every morning, Yiyun Li shares notes on the day’s reading on A Public Space’s Twitter and Instagram accounts (@apublicspace) with the hashtag #TolstoyTogether. Readers share their thoughts and responses, and ask questions using #TolstoyTogether

Yiyun Li’s Daily Reading Journal for #Tolstoy Together can also be found here.

Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace: Order your copy here.

From a recent conversation between among Yiyun Li, Garth Greenwell, Idra Novey at Politics & Prose Bookstore.

Filed under: book recs, literature

New John Luther Adams Memoir

Today brings a new book from John Luther Adams, mark it well: Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska:
“In the summer of 1975, the composer John Luther Adams, then a twenty-two-year-old graduate of CalArts, boarded a flight to Alaska. So began a journey into the mountains, forests, and tundra of the far north—and across distinctive mental and aural terrain—that would last for the next forty years.

Silences So Deep is Adams’s account of these formative decades—and of what it’s like to live alone in the frozen woods, composing music by day and spending one’s evenings with a raucous crew of poets, philosophers, and fishermen. From adolescent loves—Edgard Varèse and Frank Zappa—to mature preoccupations with the natural world that inform such works as The Wind in High Places, Adams details the influences that have allowed him to emerge as one of the most celebrated and recognizable composers of our time. Silences So Deep is also a memoir of solitude enriched by friendships with the likes of the conductor Gordon Wright and the poet John Haines, both of whom had a singular impact on Adams’s life. Whether describing the travails of environmental activism in the midst of an oil boom or midwinter conversations in a communal sauna, Adams writes with a voice both playful and meditative, one that evokes the particular beauty of the Alaskan landscape and the people who call it home.

Ultimately, this book is also the story of Adams’s difficult decision to leave a rapidly warming Alaska and to strike out for new topographies and sources of inspiration. In its attentiveness to the challenges of life in the wilderness, to the demands of making art in an age of climate crisis, and to the pleasures of intellectual fellowship, Silences So Deep is a singularly rich account of a creative life.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Gordon Brooks Wright

We are in the middle of nowhere.

All the other musicians of the Arctic Chamber Orchestra have flown off to the next stop on our tour of villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. With only our backpacks, a duffel bag full of music stands, and a pair of kettledrums, Gordon Wright and I are here alone at this remote airstrip, waiting for the plane to return.

It is early April. The world around us is an endless expanse of white. After the long night of winter, the sun has come back to the north. The morning is resplendent, but the air is cold. So we stand on the south side of the little shack next to the airstrip, basking in the warm light. Everything is golden… [continue]

Filed under: book recs, John Luther Adams

Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student protests. One of my recent projects was to translate the collection of essays Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance, which was conceived and edited by the remarkable Basil Rogger, together with colleagues Jonas Voegeli and Ruedi Widmer, as an undertaking with students at the Zurich University of the Arts and in conjunction with the exhibit Protest: Resistance Posters hosted by the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich.

Published by Lars Müller in separate German and English editions, Protest “presents and reflects on present and past forms of protest and looks at marginalized communities’ practices of resistance from a wide variety of perspectives” and “considers social, culture-historical, sociological, and political perspectives as well as approaches that draw on visual theory, popular culture, and cultural studies.”

The list of contributors includes: Michelle Akanji, Friedrich von Borries, Delphine Chapuis, Teju Cole, Hans-Christian Dani, Steven Duncombe, Anna Feigenbaum, Philipp Felsch, Marleen Fitterer, Meret Fischli, Corinne Gisel, Johannes Hedinger, Knut Henkel, Henriette Herm, Larissa Holaschke, Ines Kleesattel, Wolfgang Kraushaar, Wong Chi Lui, Elisio Macamo, Eva Mackensen, Franziska Meierhofer, Tine Melzer, Rabih Mroué, Pedro Oliveira, Dominique Raemy, Maybelle Eequay Reiter, Bettina Richter, Basil Rogger, Pascal Ronc, Allan Sekula, Jörg Scheller, Joana Schertenleib, Klaus Schönberger, Alankrita Shrivastava, Viktoria Tiedeke, Zeynep Tufekci, Marius Wenger, Rosamund van der Westhuizen, Max Wild, Dominik Wolfinger, Kacey Wong, Suzanne Zahnd, and Michel Zai.

Here’s a soundtrack of “Songs of Resistance: 1942-2018” that accompanies the book.

Filed under: art exhibition, book recs, translation

Finding the Key: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But… really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible,” is the lesson that beams in on the short-wave radio. The hyper-curious, gifted, white-haired German orphan Werner Pfennig and his sensitive sister Jutta listen in, escaping through the invisible waves for a moment from the coal-mining town of Zollverein.

This is just one of many memorably etched moments in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I became a fan of Doerr’s writing last year when his short story collection Memory Wall fell into my hands. Doerr possesses the rare gift of a distinctive style that avoids mannerism and that endows his characters — well, most of them — with depth and compassionate believability.

The beauty of Doerr’s fiction is both stylistic and structural. His lyrical, keenly observed prose in All the Light We Cannot See supports a meticulously crafted and layered narrative. The narrative follows a more or less old-fashioned model, using a thriller plot as the engine for what is really of interest: the development of its two main characters, the blind French girl Marie-Laure and Werner, as the horrors of the Second World War grimly unfold around them.

Doerr dextrously interleaves different points of view while time-warping back and forth from the climactic scenes in the walled port city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, just after D-Day in the summer of 1944. The tone similarly blends aspects of a fable with penetrating realism.

I agree with William T. Vollmann‘s assessment that one major flaw is the two-dimensional portrayal of Sgt. Maj. Reinhold von Rumpel: an almost comic-book Nazi villain hell-bent on his quest for a rare blue diamond known as the Sea of Flame. This Nazi’s “wickedness and physical loathsomeness are offset by nothing that could make him into a rounded character,” observes Vollmann. “His unbelievability exemplifies a mistake writers often make when describing monsters.”

And Vollmann captures the “old-fashioned” quality of Doerr’s achievement here when he notes that All the Light We Cannot See “is more than a thriller and less than great literature. As such, it is what the English would call ‘a good read.'”

Here’s how the author explains what he means by the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant).

It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.

Why continue to write about WWII? Doerr from his NPR interview with Arun Rath:

We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.

And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it’s through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they’re often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. I worry that that’s dangerous. I think it’s important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.

Filed under: book recs, literature

Interviewing Sam Harris

Sam Harris

I ran into this old interview I did years ago with the brilliant and hugely controversial neuroscientist, philosopher, and gadfly thinker Sam Harris.

It’s actually a decade old, from when I was still an editor at Amazon (and when Amazon was, let’s just say, a very different place). The subject was the first book by the prolific Mr. Harris, The End of Faith, which went on to win the 2005 PENN Award for Nonfiction.

Interview with Sam Harris: The Mortal Dangers of Religious Faith
Not long before the birth of Christ, in an age of violence and turmoil, the Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher Lucretius wrote an epic masterpiece titled De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”). His goal, in part, was to liberate humankind from the religious superstitions that he believed stood in the way of true peace of mind and happiness.

Author Sam Harris plays the role of a contemporary Lucretius in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and is a doctoral candidate in the field of neuroscience.

Well aware that a book about the inherent dangers of institutional, dogmatic religion would court controversy, Harris wrote The End of Faith out of a sense of urgency regarding what he argues constitutes perhaps the greatest threat we face today. He shared his thoughts about the character of dogmatic faith versus mysticism, the role of reason in civil discourse, and the hope that humans can overcome the propensity toward religious violence before it’s too late.

continue reading

Filed under: book recs, interview, philosophy, religion

War Time: Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane, c. 1896

Stephen Crane, c. 1896

Reviewing Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire, Thomas Powers observes:

Something had changed in Crane since the publication of ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ It can be seen in all of the Cuban pieces but most clearly in ‘War Memories,’ a partly fictionalised account as long as a novella. In it, along with much else, Crane describes the fate of Dr John Gibbs, a naval surgeon shot in the night when guerrillas attacked Crane’s detachment at Guantánamo:

‘I heard somebody dying near me. He was dying hard … The darkness was impenetrable. The man was dying in some depression within seven feet of me. Every wave, vibration, of his anguish beat upon my senses. He was long past groaning. There was only the bitter strife for air which pulsed out in a clear penetrating whistle with intervals of terrible silence … I thought this man would never die. I wanted him to die. Ultimately he died. At that moment the adjutant came bustling along erect among the spitting bullets. ‘Where’s the doctor?’ … A man answered briskly: ‘Just died this minute, sir.’ Despite the horror of this night’s business, the man’s mind was somehow influenced by the coincidence of the adjutant’s calling aloud for the doctor within a few seconds of the doctor’s death. It – what shall I say? It interested him, this coincidence.’

Crane had caught a clear glimpse of what he was seeking, the thing beyond ordinary experience. It wasn’t just the death of Gibbs, but the coincidence, and the man’s interest in the coincidence, despite the horror of the night’s business. The change in the writing, the ‘maturing’ noticed by Conrad, is the addition of Crane himself, what he is feeling and experiencing – ‘no longer a cynic. I was a child who, in a fit of ignorance, had jumped into a vat of war.’ He is not only describing war but using himself as an instrument to calibrate the quality and effects of war. Over time this has become a principal technique for writing about war and other extreme experience, widely used by writers as different as Salinger in ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ and Michael Herr writing about Vietnam in ‘Dispatches.’

Filed under: biography, book recs

The Latest from Martin Amis


Last night I attended the reading by Martin Amis at this year’s edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I haven’t had a chance yet to get to his latest novel, The Zone of Interest — from which Amis read an extended excerpt — but it sounds a good deal more substantial than Time’s Arrow from 1991, which also concerns the Holocaust.

Last night’s interview with Alan Taylor, editor of The Scottish Review of Books, included discussion of what drew Amis to such a bottomlessly grim subject, the virus of ideology vis-à-vis religion (and its contemporary manifestations, e.g., Isis), the insights of Primo Levi as a survivor, the writing process, the novelist’s famous “war against cliché” (with a brief excursion into Joyce, recapping some themes from his essays — such as a reading of Ulysses as essentially “about cliché”), and a brief tribute to Christopher Hitchens (by way of a joke that surely would have been more effective when stretched out in Hitchens’s characteristic manner).

There were some very thought-provoking reflections on the nature of evil, the terrible historical “fusion” that led to Hitler and the Nazis, and the impossibility of finding an “explanation.” Amis stated, “What I do reject is the claim that it’s easy to understand — that this kind of brutality and fanatical hatred is simply atavistic human nature at its root, waiting to come out.”

The subject was not one he “decided on,” Amis explained, referring instead to Nabokov’s notion of the “throb” — the moment of recognition an artist gets when it becomes clear that “here is something I can write a novel about.”

In his review, Taylor ventures that The Zone of Interest might be Amis’s “greatest book”:

What Amis has achieved through fiction is to illuminate that which history can only hint at. By and large, we do not know what those who prosecuted the genocide in the first half of the 1940s thought or felt. Their testimonies were compromised, their accounts self-serving, designed to save their skins or excuse the inexcusable. Like Doll, Rudolph Hoss, who was in command of Auschwitz for three years and who presided over the extermination of a quarter of a million people, was insensitive, apathetic and obsessed with notions duty and efficiency. Killing had no effect on him. Everything could be explained by quoting numbers. Amis puts us where we would rather not go, into the head of someone like him, someone emotionally dead, to whom life is actually meaningless.

Filed under: book recs, novelists, Uncategorized



Reviewing cultural historian Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator, David Trotter singles out the role of individualized control:

The clue to the elevator’s significance lies in the buttons that adorn its interior and exterior. Its automation, at the beginning of the 20th century, created a system of electronic signalling which brought the entire operation under the control of the individual user. In no other mode of transport could a vehicle be hailed, directed and dismissed entirely without assistance, and by a touch so slight it barely amounts to an expenditure of energy. The machine appears to work by information alone. Elevators, Bernard says, reprogrammed the high-rise building. It might be truer to say that they reprogrammed the people who made use of them, in buildings of any kind.

There were, as Trotter points out, many revolutionary consequences: making the skyscraper possible, the “recodification of verticality” (Bernard) — meaning the migration of the “top” class hotel rooms from the bottom literally to the top — the influence on urban planning, etc.

But for all these more or less obvious transformations, Trotter also refers to the elevator’s uncanny symbolic significance in modern life:

Safety first was not so much a motto as a premise. No wonder that the closest high-end TV drama has come to Sartrean nausea is the moment in “Mad Men” when a pair of elevator doors mysteriously parts in front of troubled genius Don Draper, who is left peering in astonishment down into a mechanical abyss. The cables coiling and uncoiling in the shaft stand in for the root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree.

Filed under: book recs, cultural criticism, urban planning

Nietzsche vs. Dawkins


The event itself is far too great, too distant, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of as having ARRIVED as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet WHAT this event really means — and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown into it; for example, the whole of our European morality.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft

Michael Robbins cites that passage in his recent review of Atheists: The Origin of the Species by Nick Spencer, who directs the London-based, Christian think-tank Theos.

Spencer ventures an historical traversal of the intellectual history of atheism, wherein “one of his most trenchant themes is that it is more proper to speak of atheisms and of various species of atheist.” (It’s worth noting — as the classical scholar Barbara Graziosi does in her excellent and highly recommendable “reception history” of the pagan Greek gods, The Gods of Olympus: A History — that for the ancient Greeks, the alpha-privative word “atheos” [ἄθεος] didn’t normally connote an unbeliever, but rather “someone whom the gods had abandoned.”)

Robbins describes how Nietzsche’s atheism is positioned historically by Spencer:

Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority of the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem. [sic*])

The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments. A coherent atheism would understand this, because it would be aware of its own history. Instead, trendy atheism of the Dawkins variety has learned as little from its forebears as from Thomas Aquinas, preferring to advance a bland version of secular humanism.

(*”sic” because this reads like a caricature of Dawkins’s theories — precisely the kind of superficial, gross misunderstanding of which Spencer is accusing the new atheists.)

More and more, Nietzsche’s importance for Mahler begins to make sense…

Reviewing Spencer in The Guardian, meanwhile, Julian Baggini observes:

Spencer is here promoting the conception of “religiosity as pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions”. On this view, what matters is not whether difficult doctrines such as eternal damnation or even Christ’s resurrection are true or false, but that a life guided by such ideas is somehow richer, more complete, more directed towards a higher good.

If that is right, then atheists who have criticised religion for its doctrines have spectacularly missed the point, “tilting at theological windmills”. But as Spencer himself argues, we didn’t see “theological liberalism redrawing the lines” until the last decades of the 19th century, and, even then, only a minority accepted the new map.

Filed under: book recs, philosophy

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