Sunday, October 27, 2013

"The music, in a sense, plays us."

The orchestra of the Janowska Camp in Lvov, Poland in 1943

"During the worst periods of despotism and tyranny, people could learn musical scores by heart. Even where music was forbidden, they could still commit it to memory. Music is very difficult to censor. Yes, it can by stopped. It can be suppressed. Musicians can be hunted and hounded and tortured. But still, it is there. And, always, its strange mystery remains. [  ] to remember the last concerts of that very ambiguous genius, Furtwängler. The lights went out regularly. And we have recordings where you hear the gunfire of the Russian artillery approaching Berlin. In Furtwängler's Beethoven and one Haydn recording at that time played in the dark, the people in the audience knowing they were doomed, knowing they are doomed - and to a horrible fate. And there are no greater recordings or readings of that music known to me than those. There is something in the music which is much stronger even than our greatest performers. The music, in a sense, plays us. We are played by it."

From ARSC: Sound Recording Reviews (pdf):

"Walter Gieseking was acutely aware of every sound his fingers and pedaling produced; he was a perfectionist of the highest order. The New Grove Dictionary accuses him of setting standards that have proved impossible to surpass in his definitive Debussy and Ravel series. His Beethoven concertos were just as notable. In this performance Arthur Rother expertly guides the Berlin Radio Orchestra. The dignified tone set by the first powerful E-Flat chord remains throughout the rest of the concerto. The epithet “Emperor" is well deserved. 
Tom Nulls liner notes point out that Napoleon’s conquest of Austria culminated while Beethoven composed this piece. As the artillery neared Beethoven covered his damaged ears with pillows while he took refuge in his brother’s cellar. Once the city had fallen though he stormed and ranted at Napoleon, and finished this concerto. 
How ironic and appropriate that booming anti-aircraft guns in the waning days of World War ll are perceptible in the background of this performance. Near the end of the first movemetns cadenza a faint “ta-toom... ka-thoom... brrrooom” faintly, yet distinctly sounds at a great distance, like some ghost timpani. Gieseking’s piano playing rolls right along, gently erasing all remembrance of the storms and stresses of war."

From blechmusik:

"In the cadenza and some quiet passages you can hear the artillery from outside the RRG-building (2´30"+, 5´40"+). For me this is just unbelievable, a historical document and an impressive testimonial against war.

Historic Stereo-Recording from 1944 with Walter Gieseking as soloist and Arthur Rother and the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester. 2009 we can celebrate the 65th anniversary of stereophonic tape recordings. So I thought it might be interesting to upload a few recordings that Mr. Helmut Krüger made at the RRG in Berlin in the early 40´s with the AEG-Telefunken K7 stereo tape recoder (Krüger was nicknamed by his radio colleagues Krüger-Krüger, in witty reference to his habit to record everything in stereo).

After the soviets brought the complete RGG-archive to Moscow in 1945 unfortunately from the hundreds of Stereo recordings only a handful found their way back to Berlin. And in a very bad condition.

The over 60 years old tape was transfered directly to digital equipment without any processing."

From Public Address: Nightingales/Bombs/Beethoven:

"Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 5 had been recorded by RRG in Berlin, as part of the on-going stereo experiments at the very end of 1944. Featuring the great German pianist Walter Gieseking, and the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester under Arthur Rother, the stereo taping had also unintentionally caught the sounds of the anti-aircraft batteries outside the RRG building during an allied air-raid. In the quiet passages of the Allegro movement, (2´30"+, 5´40"+ in the clip), the thumps of the anti-aircraft fire are clearly discernible. 
The combination of Beethoven and artillery in a stereo recording from the heart of the German Reich in the last days of the war is another profound historic and audio experience. Under fire, Gieseking and the Großes Berliner Rundfunkorchester prove themselves every bit as good as the well-regarded Berlin Philharmonic. The sound-engineering is crisp, even through the medium of Youtube. The bang of anti-aircraft batteries is an unrhythmic atmosphere. The counterpointing of human impulses, destruction and creation, is almost unique [sic]."

From Behold Media:

"Recording of Nightingale birdsong from a garden in Surrey, England on May 19th 1942 as 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers fly overhead on a bombing raid to Germany."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

It is forbidden to laugh in the kingdom of death: Three Instances

The woman's (assumed) hysterical laughter. The stoic calm of the donkey. The slapstick nature of the dilemma. The cartoonish Aesopian elements all combing to create a fundamentally humorous situation. But exactly what makes it so funny is the concern here. Jokes and humorous incidents like the donkey and the overloaded cart share with music modal difficulties related to language. Chopin's famous "explanation" of piece of music by playing it again. Koestler's bisociaton assists with the deconstruction in a philosophical sense:

"[Humor] is the perceiving of a situation or idea in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference or associative contexts."

But this still has a long way to go to get to the humor of the donkey and the cart. The words pile up desperately, trying to unravel the strange and ridiculous response in the sound of laughter. Why do we make this sound? So close to cries of pain. What is this ululating primal, wheezing noise coming out of our mouth? Why is it so contagious? What is it about pain, the uncomfortable situations of others, that brings it about so readily? Why is the suspended donkey so funny? And why is it funnier to hear someone else laughing over it?

Certainly the pressure of being, of the daily endurance, in this world is relieved through laughter. Hydraulic metaphors come immediately to mind. Laughter as a means of "letting off steam". Nietzsche claimed:

"Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."

There is evidence that man is not alone here. Animals exhibit a curious perplexity about the world at times that indicates a sort of proto-laughter. Dogs quizzically turning their heads. Horses neighing and nickering. Dolphins squealing and clicking. Monkeys howling and panting. Perhaps it is all anthropomorphic conceit: the overburdened donkey's hee-haw seems all too human until it dies of a heart attack in the traces. The point here is that, contra-Nietzsche (although I believe his statement to have been rhetorical and not without a measure of irony), man did not "invent laughter".

"Indeed, Provine maintains that almost all mammals laugh in this way—”If you tickle a rat, it laughs; we just can’t hear it.”

By contrast, “the human ‘ha-ha-ha’ chops up an exhalation the same way speech does,” Provine says. If you digitally remove the “ha” sound from a human laugh the way Provine has in a recording studio, you hear a long exhalation or sigh. This extended sigh may be our most primal existential defense mechanism, controlling our breathing in ways known to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Decoupling the laugh from respiration—so that we can giggle instead of pant—was a crucial evolutionary moment, Provine postulates, because it enabled the vocal control that allowed us to make all kinds of other “fancy sounds” needed for speech.

To reach that moment, though, Provine believes we needed to begin walking on two legs, taking pressure off the thorax, since four-legged mammals must synchronize their strides with their breath. The enhanced vocal control facilitated by this shift required “restructuring” our nervous system, adding cells to the area of the spinal cord that controls respiration and bulking up the part of the brain that coordinates these cells and facilitates speech and comprehension." 

It is interesting to imagine laughter as a vestigial byproduct of evolution or an epiphenomenal ghost in the machine. At the same time, the quality of our humor (the language here is riddled with outmoded paradigms) is central to our well-being. Without laughter, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, life would seem to be a mistake. Again, what is this strange behavior?

Milan Kundera, in his Jerusalem Address, states:

"There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. Inspired by that adage, I like to imagine that François Rabelais heard God's laughter one day, and thus was born the idea of the first great European novel. It pleases me to think that the art of the novel came into the world as the echo of God's laughter. 
But why does God laugh at the sight of man thinking? Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man's thought diverges from another's. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is."

The Vision of God Laughing by B. Jones

Most often, when God enters the discourse, laughter is forbidden. The puritanical Protestant stands in caricature. Laughter as sin. Jesus never laughed (or danced, for that matter - earning Nietzsche's distrust). Many would have it that to laugh is to mock God, to even defy him. So the simple and closed minded wear their countenances with grave and stern decorum.

Enter Quixote, Gargantua, Falstaff. Laughter is overabundance of energy, of will, of spirit. Even so, unbridled it can lead to ruin. Rites of passage remark this with revelatory implications. To be able to laugh at death, to know how, when and where to laugh at death, even with death, is the key to our meaning.

"Interdiction of laughter also occurs in ritual, namely, in the rite that represents the descent into the kingdom of death and the return from it, namely, the initiation of youths at the onset of puberty. In spite of a huge literature, data on initiation are very sparse, since this rite is a deep secret. Nevertheless some things are known. In Boas's extensive study of the social organization and secret societies of the Kwakiutl tribe are two brief mentions of the fact that during the rites the initiates are forbidden to laugh (Boas 1897, 506, 642). P. W. Schmidt gave a more detailed picture for one of the islands of Oceania. The last act of the ceremony is an attempt to make the youths laugh. They line up in a row. "Now there appears a young woman dressed in men's clothing; she behaves and speaks like a man. She carries a spear with many spearheads and a burning torch and she walks along the line of boys. If none of them laughs she reaches the end of the line, but if someone laughs, she rejoices and goes away without finishing her walk. The boys have been warned of the man-woman and instructed not to laugh. If someone laughs his father says to him, 'Now we won't receive any gifts.' (Schmidt 1907. 1052). 
In light of the data given above this case also becomes clear. It is forbidden to laugh in the kingdom of death. The whole rite of initiation is a simulation of death. The one who laughs discovers that he has not been fully cleansed of earthly things, just as a shaman in the kingdom of death gives himself away as alive by laughter. Note also that the one who laughs does not receive gifts: he is considered not to have passed the test (we cannot go into the phenomenon of travesty although it is not accidental here). [...]
If the facts set forth here are indeed based on one single concept of laughter, they can explain some other facts that at first glance seem baffling, for instance, laughter accompanying death a classic example of which is so-called sardonic laughter. Among the very ancient people of Sardinia, who were called Sardi or Sardoni, it was customary to kill old people. While killing their old people, the Sardi laughed loudly. This is the origin of notorious sardonic laughter (Fehrle 1930, 3), now meaning cruel malicious laughter. In light of our findings things begin to look different. Laughter accompanies the passage from death to life; it creates life and accompanies birth. Consequently, laughter accompanying killing transforms death into a new birth, nullifies murder as such, and is an act of piety that transforms death into a new birth." [ emphasis mine ]

- Theory and History of Folklore, Vladimir Propp

Note in the examples below when laughter is inappropriate, taboo, how powerful it becomes. Also contagious. It is difficult to not laugh. Even with repeated viewings, knowing what to expect, laughter still arises as a natural reaction. Why? On the most immediate level, a report of a man chopping up his wife and another man with a high-pitched voice (in another language no less) are not occasions for humor. Both instances are charged with laughter. The killer's staring face, the man's unexpected voice and the laughter it occasions in the reporter and interviewer. Then in us, watching. Why are we laughing?

Following Kundera, the less we think and the more we laugh, the closer we get to God. But this is an enlightened laughter conscious of the pollution of "earthly things". What does such laughter sound like? Jesus on the Cross looking upwards with a grim smile. The Buddha touching the earth after the moments of temptation. Lao-Tzu at Han Chou Pass giving the gatekeeper a small book of writing.

All fascinating, revealing, mysterious, and transformative. 

"De resurgentibus dicitur, quod ridere no soleant."

Friday, October 18, 2013

Theophagy or Eucharist: "They ate every part of the body, even the bones."

Saturno devorando a su hijo - Francisco de Goya(1819-1823)

Dark night in the mountains and no drums beating. No flute music like birdsong from the forest above the village — the men controlled the flutes and this was women’s business, secret and delicious, sweet revenge. In pity and mourning but also in eagerness the dead woman’s female relatives carried her cold, naked body down to her sweet-potato garden bordered with flowers. They would not abandon her to rot in the ground. Sixty or more women with their babies and small children gathered around, gathered wood, lit cooking fires that caught the light in their eyes and shone on their greased dark skins. The dead woman’s daughter and the wife of her adopted son took up knives of split bamboo, their silicate skin sharp as glass. They began to cut the body for the feast. 
By the time Dutch, German and English ships began to anchor at the mouths of the island’s great tidal rivers, in the mid-nineteenth century, it was common knowledge among Europeans that the savages of New Guinea were cannibals. But there are cannibals and cannibals: warriors who eat their enemies, hating them, but also relatives who eat their kin in a mortuary feast of love. Fore women ate their kin. “Their bellies are their cemeteries,” one observer remarks. “I eat you” was a Fore greeting. 
Down in the garden in the flaring firelight, the dead woman’s daughters ringed her wrists and ankles, sawed through the tough cartilage, disjointed the bones and passed the wrinkled dark hands and splayed feet to her brother’s wife and the wife of her sister’s son. Slitting the skin off the arms and legs, the daughters stripped out muscle, distributing it in dripping chunks to kin and friends among the eager crowd of women. They opened the woman’s chest and slack belly and the smell of death wafted among the sweet-potato vines. Out came the heavy purple liver, the small green sac of the gallbladder cut carefully away from the underside and its bitterness discarded. Out came the dark red heart gory with clotting blood. Out came the looping coils of intestines, dully shining. Even the feces would be eaten, mixed with edible ferns and cooked in banana leaves. 
The crowd of women and children got busy at collecting and chopping as the body of the dead woman diminished. (Her name survives as a discreet abbreviation in a medical thesis: Tom. Tomasa?) One of the daughters doing the butchering cut around the neck, severed the larynx and esophagus, sawed through the cartilage connecting the vertebrae, disjointed the spine and lifted the head aside. The other daughter skinned back the scalp skillfully, took up a stone ax, cracked the skull and scooped the soft pink mass of brain into a bamboo cooking tube. Their cousins, the North Fore, cooked bodies whole with vegetables in steam pits lined with hot stones, but the South Fore preferred mincing the flesh of the dead and steaming it with salt, ginger and leafy vegetables in bamboo tubes laid onto cooking fires. They ate every part of the body, even the bones, which they charred at the open fires to soften them before crumbling them into the tubes. The dead woman’s brother’s wife received the vulva as her special portion. If the dead had been a man, his penis, a delicacy, would have gone to his wife. 
…the isolated highlanders…wore beaded and feathered headdresses, nose bones, necklaces of pig tusks and aprons of woven bark or grass and smeared their bodies with fire char and rancid pig fat against the insects and the cold. Men carried stone axes or longbows. Some of them affected phallocarps instead of aprons — braggadocio penis sheaths made of great curving hornbill beaks or ornate sea shells traded up from the unknown coast. Women wore grass skirts and went bare-breasted. They cut off finger joints in mourning, wore mourning necklaces of the dried hands of lost babies, carried a husband’s rotting head in a woven bag, a bilum, on their backs for months after his loss, suffering the stink.
Eating the dead was not a primordial Fore custom. It had started within the lifetime of the oldest grandmothers among them, at the turn of the century or not long before. They learned it from their neighbors to the north. It spread to a North Fore village and word got around. “This is sweet,” an anthropologist reports the Fore women saying when they first tasted human flesh. “What is the matter with us, are we mad? Here is good food and we have neglected to eat it. In future we shall always eat the dead, men, women, and children. Why should we throw away good meat? It is not right!” The meat was sweet and so was the revenge the women took thereby against the men who claimed the best parts of pig — pigs the women had sometimes suckled at their own breasts. They did not eat lepers or those who died of diarrhea, but the flesh of women killed by sorcery they considered clean. Dying Fore asked to be eaten and assigned their body parts to their favorites in advance. 
The Fore admitted their cannibalism freely to the first Europeans who questioned them, though they gave it up when missionaries and Australian police patrols pressed them to do so in the late 1950s — Sputnik was beeping overhead — and deny it today. Whatever its connection with ritual, cannibalism in New Guinea was also a significant source of protein, two American anthropologists have calculated: “A local New Guinea group of one hundred people (forty-six of whom are adults) which obtains and eats some five to ten adult victims per year would get as much meat from eating people as it does from eating pork.” 
The women at their mortuary feast butchered and cooked down in the garden, but they ate in private, carrying the steaming bamboo tubes back to their separate women’s houses, sharing the feast with their children. A young American doctor who came a few years later to live and work among them thought their eating habits almost as surreptitious as the toilet habits of Westerners. It wasn’t that they were ashamed of eating the dead — they were just as surreptitious with pig. Eating meat was orgiastic. The men said that the women were insatiable, wild, like the forest. When the men pulled the wild grass at the edge of the forest they said it was women’s pubic hair. Marriage barely tamed them. 
Lately, more and more Fore women had been dying of sorcery, which only men practiced, a fatal bewitchment they called kuru. Kuru meant shivering — with cold or with fear — and by 1950 it was claiming women in every Fore village. The Fore men earned a fearsome reputation across the highlands as sorcerers. Once the shivers of kuru began, the bewitchment progressed inexorably to death. Women bewitched with kuru staggered to walk, walked with a stick and then could no longer walk at all. Before losing the ability to swallow they got fat and the flesh of those who died early of pneumonia was rich meat.

- From Deadly Feasts: The "Prion" Controversy and the Public's Health
by Richard Rhodes. Originally found on the beautiful Ellamorte

The Last Cannibal Supper - Greg Semu, 2010.

The dying person would normally express their wishes as to how their body was to be disposed of; otherwise the family would decide. In the kuru-affected region, all methods of disposal of the body involved being eaten. If the body was buried it was eaten by worms; if it was placed on a platform it was eaten by maggots; the Fore believed it was much better that the body was eaten by people who loved the deceased than by worms and insects. By eating the dead, they were able to show their love and to express their grief. The ritual allowed the aona and yesegi to be recycled within the family and for the loved ones to receive blessings from the ama, which would strengthen their aona. The eating removed doubts about family or community loyalties as the kwela would attack any woman who ate whose family had been involved in the death of the deceased. By the eating of the body, the danger of the kwela during the period of what would have been decomposition was averted as the kwela was confined inside the anagra who ate the body, thus protecting the family. By performing the obsequies correctly, the relatives ensured that the souls of the deceased departed to kwelanandamundi and the deceased was reborn as an ancestor.

In the morning the women took any remaining meat, the bones and stones from a river bed to the fireplace that had been used the previous day to cook the body. They then performed an obsequy called ikwaya ana during which the rest of the body was eaten. The bones were dried by the fire so that they broke easily without sharp edges. Concave stones were placed on the ground containing a breadfruit leaf and a wild grass called igagi; the bones were placed on this with more igagi on the top and then crushed with another stone. This technique was used to ensure that none of the bone was lost during the process as it was important that the whole body was consumed. Once crushed, the bones and grass were placed in bamboo tubes, cooked and eaten. Finally, all the utensils used over the preceding 2 days were burnt on the fire. Sometimes the ashes from the bamboo utensils were mixed with wild green vegetables and eaten to ensure that the whole body was consumed. The exceptions were the jaw bone and collar bones, which were normally kept and worn by women in memory of the deceased and by men as a portal to request help from the ama of the deceased. In the evening, the women returned to the widow's house and continued to eat the body until it was all consumed.

- From Mortuary rites of the South Fore and kuru


Much later, Alpers, who had always felt discomforted by the term cannibalism — “you don’t like to call your friends cannibals” — would invent a new term for the Fore ritual: “transumption”. It borrowed from the lexicon of Catholic doctrine around the Eucharistic transubstantiation of bread into the body and blood of Christ. He defined the Fore custom as “incorporation of the body of the dead person into the bodies of living relatives, thus helping to free the spirit of the dead”. It was a final act of love by the grief-stricken. Yes, as anthropologists had insisted, there was a gastronomic element: people had given ready testimony that humans were delicious, especially their brains. But this was a perk, not a driver, of the practice, Alpers insisted, in papers citing the secrets shared with him and others over decades.

- From The Last Laughing Death by Jo Chandler