Thursday, July 13, 2017

Who Writes Symphonies?

Here is an intriguing little clip from the film I, Robot:

I'm pretty sure Will Smith can't (not that he's tried), but a few of us can. I have written a few, but I make no claims whatsoever as to their worth. But the meme of writing a symphony standing in for the idea of being able to do something highly creative and complex is widely disseminated. If you want some background, the Wikipedia article is a pretty good place to start.

I bring this up because of an opinion piece in the Washington Post reacting to Trump's speech in Warsaw in which he said:
The world has never known anything like our community of nations. 
We write symphonies.  We pursue innovation.  We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.
We reward brilliance.  We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God.  We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.  (Applause.)   
We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success.  We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.  And we debate everything.  We challenge everything.  We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.  (Applause.) 
Ok, you could complain that this is a bit too rah-rah, I suppose, but the Polish audience seemed to like it. But Jonathan Capeheart at the Washington Post went a bit ballistic:
 “We write symphonies.” What on Earth does that have to do with anything? It’s bad enough Trump is doing the one thing his predecessors studiously avoided: engaging in the battle-of-civilizations talk that inflames anger and tensions with Muslims, particularly in the Middle East. In that one line, taken in context with everything else Trump said, what I heard was the loudest of dog whistles. A familiar boast that swells the chests of white nationalists everywhere. 
It’s right out of the hymnal of white nationalism favored by folks who believe the world begins and ends with them.
This is the same crowd that brays about the superiority of  “Western civilization” and its contributions in the history of the world conveniently ignores (or perhaps is just plain ignorant about) what we’ve adopted from Muslims and the Middle East. Those symphonies Trump says “We write” (ahem) would be real lame without the influence of the Middle East and Muslims. According to Salim al-Hassani, chairman of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization and editor of “1001 Inventions,” which chronicles “the enduring legacy of Muslim civilization,” told CNN years ago that the lute, musical scales and the ancestor of the violin are all part of that legacy.
Sidestepping the politics entirely, I just want to comment on the assertions about music. As a matter of fact, mentioning symphonies was an excellent example to choose if you wanted to say something about the strength of Western Civilization because the symphony, along with opera perhaps the most developed and powerful musical form ever created, is entirely the creation of generations of musicians of Western Europe over the last three centuries and has now spread, if not worldwide, then certainly anywhere that classical music is regularly performed. Go back and read the Wikipedia article to refresh your memory.

So what about those mysterious musical things we have "adopted from Muslims and the Middle East"? The lute? Well, yes, the lute does come from al-oud, a North African instrument that probably predates Islam. Intriguingly, the one place in Europe that completely avoided its use was Spain, where they had just won the long reconquista to rid themselves of Muslim rule. As for musical scales, sorry, the Muslims, along with Western Europeans, simply inherited them from the ancient Greeks who actually invented them. According to Wikipedia, the ancestor of the violin originated in Central Asia long before Islam:
Two-stringed, bowed instruments, played upright and strung and bowed with horsehair, may have originated in the nomadic equestrian cultures of Central Asia, in forms closely resembling the modern-day Mongolian Morin huur and the Kazakh Kobyz. Similar and variant types were probably disseminated along East-West trading routes from Asia into the Middle East, and the Byzantine Empire.
 But any idea that any other civilization contributed to the development of the symphony is simply ludicrous. Probably the greatest formative contribution was that of Joseph Haydn, stuck out on the Esterh├ízy estate in Hungary month after month with a music-hungry nobleman to amuse. That is where the symphony came from!

Oh, and only dogs hear dog-whistles.


Steven said...

If feeling mischievous, I guess you could also say that those words seem somewhat bold when spoken by an American, given how long it took for them to write and perform their own great symphonies. People always say we’ve become more American, but it might be the case that the Americans, in the 20th century, became more European. Could an Andrew Jackson have gone to Poland and say with a straight face, ‘We write symphonies’!?

But I do think it was a very good example to use if you’re looking for contrast with the *modern* Islamic world, which Trump (or Stephen Miller or whoever wrote it) doubtless was. Of all regions, the Middle East has some of the closest historical ties to the West. Now the reverse is true. So regardless of Islamophilic historical talking-points, the situation now is that Islamic countries are cultural abysses. The complete lack of book translations into Arabic is often pointed out. But one seldom hears about the suppression of music in those countries. If I remember rightly, classical music -- and indeed all Western music -- is banned on public media in Iran. The Tehran Symphony Orchestra has been repeatedly killed and resurrected since 1979. (I did see that Riccardo Muti will doing a concert in Iran, which is wonderful progress.) And then there’s Pakistan, Saudi Arabia…

Maybe one day a President from a free Iran will visit Poland and proclaim, ‘We write symphonies. We pursue innovation…’? Eh, to dream...

Marc Puckett said...


And-- this is of interest to me only because of the larger point it illustrates-- check out the controversy about the University of Chicago protest photograph noted at the JC Wiki page (Sen Sanders's people say it's of Mr Sanders, Capehart et al say it's of someone else). These are folks only some forty years after the fact arguing about an event (at which members of both 'parties' were present): a great mix of romantic, sexual, political relationships-- and only forty years later what is the outsider interested in the 'true history' to do to sort all of it out? a good lesson pointing to the fallibility of the writers of history and of 'history' itself, Clio being no less changeable than the other gods and goddesses.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Steven! Yes, the suppression of music, any music, I think, not just Western, is one of the most salient aspects of contemporary Islam along with the oppression of women.

Marc, do you have a link to that?

Marc Puckett said...

At work all day, alas. It was Mark Steyn, here, who brought Capehart to my notice, then I read the Capehart Wikipedia page, here, and then I read Capehart's version of the Sanders's photograph/some other person's photograph kerfuffle at the Post, here. I had never read Capehart, although I knew the name having seen it at the Post. As I wrote, it's of interest only as an example of how difficult 'history' is to write. At least with music history, it isn't politicians and journalists fighting with each other.

Bryan Townsend said...

Music historiography is debated on rather a different level as the leading musicologist is undoubtedly Taruskin, who serves to moderate the debate. I suppose it is a bit like the situation in literature 20 years ago.