Days of Joy



I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put soul, wit, work, and talent into the show–and brought out the heartbeats of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. I felt at times as though the musical were opening up the music of my everyday life and the lives of the people around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.


One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill all lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.

Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?


One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”


This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.

An Update-Ish Sort of Post

I try not to make this blog too update-y, but once in a while an update or two is in order. Here are a few bundled together in one post.

The other day I bit the bullet and set up a Facebook author page. One disagreeable thing about Facebook is that it’s set up for people to judge you by how many “likes” you have. Oh, sure, now they’ve added various emoticons, so that you can personalize your “liking.” But the effect is the same. It’s one big jostle for popularity. But I wanted a place for updates, separate from the blog. So there you have it, likes or no likes. (The three likes I did receive are worth thousands as far as I am concerned.)

Next, I have announced this already (and deleted the former announcement): my TEDx talk “Take Away the Takeaway” is up on YouTube. I have been getting great responses by email. Ironically, one of the first commenters on YouTube wrote (within an hour or so of the posting), “Not many views for a 6 million subscriber channel…” Someone pointed out that it had just been posted, and he replied, “obviously, but still after 3+ hours only 100 views.” Is this supposed to pass for discourse? What irks me is not what he said–which was just silly–but the structure that sets people up to think and speak that way.

As a teacher, I continually emphasized the difference between popularity and quality. I encouraged students to consider views on their own merits, to withhold snap judgments about a text, and to hear each other out. But much of our culture pushes in the opposite direction.

in-the-heightsWait–this was supposed to be an update-ish post. My other two updates have to do with my former school. On February 4 and 5, a huge cast at Columbia Secondary School will be performing In the Heights. Year after year, the performances have been beautiful and rousing; this one promises to stand on its own. Here’s the show synopsis from the Rodgers and Hammerstein website:

IN THE HEIGHTS tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind. IN THE HEIGHTS is the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

Finally, the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE is now in production and will appear this spring! The editors have done a superb job of taking over all the responsibilities, shaping the fourth issue, and seeing the journal into the future. I have been uninvolved, except to answer a question once in a great while,  but have been eagerly awaiting the new volume.

Speaking of Columbia Secondary School, I will be returning in early March (and possibly a second time) to lead a philosophy roundtable. More on that as the date approaches. For now, that’s it for the updates.

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.


Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.


“The peacock spreads his fan”

I learned about Leonard Cohen’s death from Virgil Shaw, who mentioned it in between songs last night, during a superb show. I didn’t check my phone (and the news) until later, but there it was. Leonard Cohen is gone. Is that true? Is he gone? His music is playing in my mind, so he isn’t gone; the songs carry on in his place. What’s hitting me, though, is the knowledge  that his work is now sealed, that there will be no more new songs. Even more than that, it’s the knowledge that the person who wrote “Suzanne,” “Story of Isaac,” “Avalanche,” “The Stranger Song,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and “Hallelujah” is no longer here. Even there, it’s hard to pinpoint the sadness. He could have died earlier or later; maybe he could have lived until a hundred. At some point he would have had to go. Nor would I ever have met him, as far as I know, nor does that have anything to do with the tightness in my throat right now. What hurts is the loss of a fighter for language and song, who I trusted was somewhere breathing.

Note: I made minor revisions to this piece after posting it. It was hard to get the words right. I commented on the New York Times obituary as well; see the many beautiful comments  there.

Update: See Leon Wieseltier’s moving eulogy.

“Took the Northern Northern”


It has been an eventful past 24 hours. After finishing the take-home essay for my cantillation midterm, I went last night to hear the Dessoff Choirs perform a fantastic concert, at Alice Tully Hall, of Steven Stucky’s Take Him, Earth and Whispers, David Hurd’s In Honor of Martin (the world premiere of the orchestrated version), and Mozart’s Requiem.

In the morning I reviewed once more for the midterm, went and took it, walked over to Columbia Secondary School, talked for a while with the principal and a few others, came back home, and went to vote. Voted.

Later this week I will get to hear 20 Minute Loop play the record release show for their new album, Songs Praising the Mutant Race. The blog post title and photo are in honor of the phrase “took the Northern Northern” from their song “Hell in a Handbasket.”

I think about how a blog seems to give a sense of what a person is up to, but actually does not, or might not, more than fractionally. That got me to thinking about how my favorite literature tends to reveal how little we know about ourselves and others. There’s an illumination and humility in it. Such revelation can’t follow a formula; it takes you by surprise again and again, because of the way it stands out against the world, bursts from its frame, and lifts you up in its arms.

Gradus ad Parnassum

gradusadparnassumI took this picture yesterday in Fort Tryon Park; it is one of my favorites. It made me think of a book I loved in childhood: The Study of Counterpoint, from Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. The book teaches you counterpoint through a dialogue between teacher and student. Step by step (with some leaps and longer views), you learn the principles and practices.

I am not especially systematic when it comes to learning new things or advancing my knowledge. I like to plunge in at a much-too-difficult level and figure things out. But even that requires a sequence; I find myself going as far back as necessary to basic concepts and then working toward the problem at hand. I enjoy finding out again and again that it can be done—with languages, music, mathematics, and even human conundrums.

Here is the beginning of the dialogue in The Study of Counterpoint:

       Josephus.— I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
       Aloysius.— You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
       Joseph.— Yes.
       Aloys.— But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor? You are indeed taking on yourself a heavy task, a burden greater than Aetna. If it is in any case most difficult to choose a life work—since upon the choice, whether it be right or wrong, will depend the good or bad fortune of the rest of one’s life—how much care and foresight must he who would enter upon this art employ before he dares to decide. For musicians and poets are born such. You must try to remember whether even in childhood you felt a strong natural inclination to this art and whether you were deeply moved by the beauty of concords.

Once Josephus convinces Aloysius, the instruction begins.

Today the idea of inborn talent is unpopular—but Aloysius’s point is not that talent rules over all, but rather that the hard work of music requires great and strong desire. It can’t be a passing whim or a light interest.

On the other hand, once you have committed to the ascent, all you have to do is ascend, step by step, over many years. It doesn’t matter if sometimes you rush ahead and then backtrack, or pause for a long time at a given level; even then, you lead your life on the stairs.

“A Time When I Can Think Slowly Through Things”

Last spring I went to the New York Philharmonic to hear Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Carter Brey was the soloist; his rendition thrilled me with its subtlety and dialogue. (For years, Rostropovich’s interpretation was by far my favorite; Brey’s went beyond it.) I went back a second time, for the final night, and was sorry I couldn’t go back again.

So I was delighted to find a video clip of the New York Philharmonic rehearsing the concerto in Costa Mesa. The clip is much too short (just a fraction of the second movement), and I wish that the video editor had shown more of the musicians instead of including those city views. Even so, it’s great to watch and hear. The duet with Eileen Moon is gorgeous, and those few seconds of rehearsal accomplish and convey a lot.

While on this search, I found two excellent interviews: one with Noah Rothbaum in Runner’s World and the other with Tim Janolt for the Internet Cello Society. There are many more, but I had to limit myself. These two are full of interesting things. Brey describes running as “a time when I can think slowly through things.” He says of Laurence Lesser, his first cello teacher in college, that “his most valuable gift was showing me how to think for myself in order to find solutions to technical problems in a non-dogmatic manner.”

Here’s a quote from the first interview:

Is Bach better to listen to before running or Beethoven?
For a classical musician, great classical master works don’t really work as background music. We all find that when restaurants put classical pieces that we know on as soft background music, it’s a tremendous annoyance to us because we just want to stop and listen. The volume is usually just below the threshold for you to hear clearly. We find it annoying and offensive because this is music that wasn’t meant for background music. So it depends on what you need. If you’re really in the mood to concentrate on something that’s complex, that has certain surface complexity, then I’ll put on a piece of classical concert music. If I need something mindless to get my spinal cord going then I’ll put on pop music.

Hear, hear! And from the second:

TJ: How does one shift “in character” with the music?

CB: When shifting between two notes, many cellists tend to be on the late and fast side, which may serve musical purposes at times, though it often doesn’t. This kind of shifting is more utilitarian, merely getting from point A to point B, since it is but one of an infinite number of ways of going between two notes. It’s better if you can more consciously decide how much of a slide you want to hear. If you want to hear more of a broad-reaching kind of slide, don’t shift so late; leave the first note earlier so that there’s a more vocal effect in getting to the goal note. For wonderful examples of this, listen to the great singers, like Jessye Norman and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who were also great influences on my development.

I look forward to reading more, but much more than that, to hearing more.