Category Archives: Music

More synchronicity: Rivers of Babylon

Just after posting the previous post, I had a bit of free time, so I played the musical free-association game: I choose a song to start with and play it, and when each song ends, I play whatever comes to mind next — which will generally be related in some way. Here’s what I played this time:

  • Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Walk Like A Man”
  • They Might Be Giants, “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?”
  • The Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive”
  • James Taylor, “Walking Man”
  • Leonard Cohen, “By The Rivers Dark”

After that, the next song that came to mind was Don McLean’s “Babylon” — which, like the Cohen song, is based on Psalm 137. I wasn’t really in the mood for Don McLean, though, so I stopped the association stuff and just put iTunes on random shuffle. The third or fourth song it selected on random shuffle was — wouldn’t you know it? — Don McLean’s “Babylon.”

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Less than an hour later, I picked up Krailsheimer’s Pascal again and found the following passage:

The rivers of Babylon flow, and fall, and carry away.

O holy Sion, where everything stands firm and nothing falls!

We must sit by these rivers, not under or in them, but above, not standing upright, but sitting down, so that we remain humble by sitting, and safe by remaining above, but we shall stand upright in the porches of Jerusalem.

Let us see if this pleasure is firm or transitory; if it passes away it is a river of Babylon.

A footnote explains, “This fragment is a paraphrase of a meditation on Ps. CXXVII [sic] by St Augustine.” All this happened just hours after I had written a post which quoted St. Augustine in connection with popular music (facetiously citing “noted Augustine scholar Sir Michael P. Jagger”).

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Go back to sleep

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Mary Don’t You Weep

Out rambling the hills, I found that for some reason the old Negro spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” was in my head. Unfortunately, I only knew the first verse — so, to avoid the monotony of that one verse infinitely repeated, I began to make up other verses on the fly, using the first as a model. Here’s what I came up with:

If I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary, don’t you weep

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary, don’t you weep

Then, with Pharaoh’s army quelled
I’d hold the rod that Moses held
Water sprang where he smoted
O Mary, don’t you weep

O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Water sprang where he smoted
O Mary, don’t you weep

Then my people for to save
I’d give the Law that Moses gave
God’s own finger done wrote it
O Mary don’t you weep

O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
God’s own finger done wrote it
O Mary don’t you weep

When they’d all received the Law
Maybe I’d see what Moses saw
Canaan’s honeymilk flowin’
O Mary don’t you weep

O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Canaan’s honeymilk flowin’
O Mary don’t you weep

(slower)

And when that Promised Land I’d spied
Lord I could die like Moses died
Ain’t no body been founded
So Mary don’t you weep

O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Ain’t no body been founded
So Mary don’t you weep
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
So Mary, don’t you weep

When I came home, I looked up the real lyrics to see how far I’d diverged from tradition (answer: pretty far). Most of the verses were pretty straightforward allusions to Bible stories, but this one struck me by its strangeness:

Mary wore three links of chain
And on every link was Jesus’ name
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep

Similar lines occur in the spiritual “All Er My Sins Are Taken Erway” — but what on earth do they mean? I had always assumed that the “Mary” of the song was just a generic American slave, but this verse makes it sound like a specific historical person is intended. The Virgin? Magdalene? Moses’ sister? The last is the only one of the three that was ever in chains, but in that case “Jesus’ name” would be an anachronism — unless the “Jesus” intended were the son of Nun. (I like that idea, though of course it’s highly unlikely that uneducated slaves would have known that Jesus and Mary are the same names as Joshua and Miriam.) And aside from the question of the identity of “Mary” and “Jesus,” why three links of chain? (That’s a pretty short chain. Are we to understand that her chains have been broken off and that she wears a few links as a reminder of her past condition?) And why would Jesus’ name be on the chains? I get the impression that whoever originally wrote this verse meant something very specific by it, but that the meaning has since been lost — probably irrecoverably.

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Phil Collins’s “welcome to the jungle” song anticipated by They Might Be Giants

I recently discovered the relatively obscure They Might Be Giants song (not included on any of their studio albums) “Welcome To The Jungle.”

While it’s obviously a nod to the much more famous Guns N’ Roses song of the same name, it doesn’t have much in common with it musically.  I guess Their “ju-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ungle” recalls Axl’s “kn-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-nees,” but that’s about it. The much more obvious musical allusion, I thought, was to Phil Collins’s soundtrack music for the Disney Tarzan film — particularly “Two Worlds,” which opens the film and serves as a “welcome to the jungle” for the infant Tarzan, his parents, and the viewer.

At around the 0:35 mark, “Welcome To The Jungle” suddenly changes styles and sounds an awful lot like the Phil Collins song — and at the same time the lyrics suddenly become decidedly more Phil-Collinsy (“Now you will be with me / put your hand in my hand …” — it could almost be a reference to one of his other songs for Tarzan). I figured this just had to be deliberate — and of course, a playful nod to Tarzan in a song called “Welcome To The Jungle” is just the sort of thing I would expect from Them.

However, “Welcome To The Jungle” was released in 1992, seven years before Tarzan came out. And while it would be completely natural for the Johns to allude to a popular Disney movie, the idea that a not-at-all-jokey Phil Collins song would secretly be an homage to an obscure TMBG track is a lot harder to swallow.

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I did a search for Phil Collins and TMBG to see if there was any indication that Phil might (inexplicably) be a fan of Theirs. All I found was this comment by TMBG’s John Linnell on “You’ll Be In My Heart” — also from Tarzan:

Defending the music of Mr. Collins can be a fruitless, time-wasting effort. In the simplest terms, throughout his career I’ve been silently praying that the earth would open up and swallow him and all his works. So the pleasure I took in this ballad from the Tarzan soundtrack took me completely off guard. Something about the third and fourth chords against the melody in the chorus seems to transcend the cheap sentimentality in his music that I have found so offensive in the past. Either he made some radical breakthrough in his songwriting or I’ve gone soft in the head. Or both.

So I take it they’re not exactly good friends.

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Two unlikely songs that always put me in a good mood

“Rocky Road to Dublin” as performed by the Serbian band Orthodox Celts. You’d think actual Irishmen would be the best at performing this song, but I’ve yet to find an Irish vocalist who can sing it as well as Aleksandar Petrović.

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“Wagon Wheel,” an unfinished song of Bob Dylan’s, later finished by the Old Crow Medicine Show, and subsequently covered by Darius Rucker from Hootie and the Blowfish. I didn’t expect to like this, since Hootie and the Blowfish aren’t nearly as good as OCMS, and of course neither act is even in the same league as Dylan, but it works surprisingly well. If greatness is essentially depth, then I suppose this particular division of labor — skin by Hootie, flesh by OCMS, bones by the Mighty Quinn himself — makes sense.

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Two hymns

I often post about songs that can be mixed together or sung simultaneously, but usually I just link to each song and let the reader imagine the combination for himself. Here’s one where I actually went to the trouble of combining them myself and making an audio file (which I’ve uploaded to YouTube as a video, since WordPress doesn’t allow me to upload MP3s).

The songs are two Christian hymns, “All Creatures of Our God and King” (Lasst Uns Erfreuen) and “He Is Risen” (Unser Herrscher by Joachim Neander, sung in some churches as “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty”). I did this arrangement back in the nineties.

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The difficulty of becoming familiar with classical music

I mentioned in this post that I’ve never really been able to “get” classical music — that even my enjoyment of Bach is superficial and basically non-aesthetic in nature.

That’s not entirely true.

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Some time ago I thought I could feel a nervous breakdown coming on, the same way you can sense strep throat or a migraine looming in the distance hours or even days before the symptoms begin. Not that I would really know, never having experienced a nervous breakdown, but there’s an instinct for these things; it’s like the way people instinctively know that beer tastes like horse urine even if they’ve never tried the latter beverage. I could feel my spirit shifting around uncomfortably, straining a bit at the walls of its tabernacle, and an inarticulate inner voice whispered something that felt an awful lot like “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.”

And then a new presence appeared — a piece of music demanding to be played in my head: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Something resisted it at first, but finally I opened to it, let those Ezekiel-wheels spin into my mind, let that good angel take possession and drive the devil out. It’s a remarkable piece of music — never pausing for breath, never missing a step, and yet somehow it feels entirely unpremeditated: you can tell that Bach sat down at his harpsichord one day and just played it, never knowing any more than what the very next note should be. “Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” The music is about taking one step into the dark, and then another, and then another, and — unaccountably — never making a single mistake, never a single sin against perfect beauty.

When the chorale had finished, I knew I would be just fine. Saved — pardon the unpardonable pun — from a fugue by a cantata.

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So I guess I understand the “Bach, therefore God” argument a little better than I let on. Of course all that “really” happened was that I felt a little strange, recalled a piece of music I had heard, and felt normal again — but the fact remains that I can’t even begin to describe what the experience was like, subjectively, without casting it in supernatural terms and drawing heavily on the Bible. I experienced it as possession: a bad spirit had taken up residence, and a good spirit drove it out. “Om isn’t just a sound,” someone says somewhere, “it’s a person” — and I could have said the same thing of the Bach piece. And really, is it any less nonsensical for an angel to appear in the form of a piece of music than in the form of a carbon-based organism?

But was it really an angel? And does the whole experience somehow prove that there is a God? No, and no. I’ve no warrant to jump to such conclusions. But I can understand why someone might.

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So why, when I was making my confession of musical philistinism, did I forget all about this experience? I’m not sure. I knew that the piece in question was by Bach, but somehow I didn’t make the connection.

“Bach” for me means The Art of Fugue and, really, nothing else. I can name a few other compositions — the Goldberg Variations, the Brandenburg Concertos — but they’re just names. (I think this can be attributed to my having come to classical music by way of geekdom, having first met Bach in company with Gödel and Escher.) Beethoven is the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies (though I can never remember which is which)  and “Für Elise.” I doubt if I could identify a single piece by Mozart. I’ve listened to Don Giovanni many times but would be hard pressed to hum a few bars from it; I find it totally unmemorable. The only other composers with whom I can pretend even the shallowest familiarity are Chopin (Hofstadter’s influence again) and Shostakovich (because some Myers-Briggs book said his music should appeal to the INTP personality type). Chopin — whom I know, for some reason, by his mazurkas rather than his études — is pleasant enough, but I can’t tell one piece from another. I did a pretty good job of convincing myself for a while that I could dig Shostakovich, but it didn’t stick; I remember none of his music. Aside from a few other isolated pieces — “Clair de Lune,” Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Handel’s Messiah, Dvořák’s seventh Humoresque, the usual Tchaikovsky stuff everyone knows, one other piece which I can’t name but know is by Haydn — that’s the extent of my musical knowledge. My “several unsuccessful attempts to cultivate a taste for classical music” have consisted mainly of listening to Art of Fugue, Don Giovanni, and Beethoven’s symphonies over and over and hoping something would click.

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But why should it be so? I grew up in a house where classical music was played just as often as pop, so why am I now thoroughly familiar with Simon & Garfunkel and the Moody Blues but almost completely ignorant of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart? Maybe just because that’s what I liked, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. My parents and siblings also played a lot of pop music that I didn’t really like, but I have no trouble remembering what it was. With most of the classical stuff, my memory is a complete blank. I know Vivaldi was played a lot; I can even remember what the record covers looked like — but Vivaldi is just a name. I have zero recollection of his actual music. Really nothing whatsoever.

I think a big part of the problem is probably the lack of lyrics — or of lyrics which I can understand, anyway. (Pieces with English lyrics, like the Messiah, are much more memorable.) Remembering a song is easier than remembering an instrumental piece for the same reason that learning how to spell a new English word is easier than learning how to write a new Chinese character: it’s made up of familiar components which have names.

The absence of lyrics also means that there’s no way to “look up” a piece of music you’ve heard and find out what it is. If I hear an unfamiliar song which I like on the radio, it’s easy to find out what it’s called and who it’s by. When it comes to instrumental music, it’s not so easy. For example, the garbage trucks in Taiwan play music to alert people that they are coming, sometimes “Für Elise,” and sometimes Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “A Maiden’s Prayer.” Despite having heard that latter piece hundreds and hundreds of times during my eight years in this country, I never knew what it was until a few minutes ago, when I had the bright idea of googling “Taiwan garbage truck music.” There’s no way to look up a melody and get its name, so except in special cases like this one Google is useless.

Even instrumental music from a movie soundtrack isn’t so convenient to look up. I thought one of the pieces in the film Hilary and Jackie was remarkable, so I looked up the soundtrack — and got a list of twenty opaque names like “Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G Major,” any one of which could be the one I was after. I had no choice but to track down each piece on the list, listen to it, and see if it was the one. I got discouraged halfway through this exercise (this was before everything was on YouTube) and never did find it.

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Those godawful names for the pieces are a problem in their own right. While several classical pieces do have proper names, it seems the vast majority have only these ugly, soulless, totally forgettable genre-number-key labels. Trying to remember which pieces you like is like trying to remember the Dewey Decimal numbers of your favorite books. “I just love 873.01 V 819-2! What a masterpiece! Even better than 872.01 V 819 in my opinion.” (Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues, respectively; the only library books that happened to be on my desk.)

Why did so many musicians put up with those horrible names? They’re as bad as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, a name which most everyone has the good sense to reject in favor of Whistler’s Mother. (There’s also an Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2, a portrait of Carlyle in the same style. Whistler’s Mother is so iconic that No. 2 now looks like an L.H.O.O.Q.-style parody.) At least with Whistler’s title I know it refers to one of his gray and black paintings. If I had perfect pitch, I suppose “G Major” would be just as informative as “Grey and Black” — but I don’t have perfect pitch.

But informativeness aside, how did composers stomach those names aesthetically? Bach didn’t name his sons Boy 1, Boy 2, Boy 3, and Boy 4 — that would have been barbaric — so why was he so willing to inflict similar barbarisms on most of his compositions?

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