How Music Works
Let’s be fair: David Byrne is a musician, not a writer. He’s certainly a thoughtful musician, but a musician just the same. How Music Works is an interesting record of his thoughts on the history, aesthetics, culture and business of music. Absent his body of recorded work, I don’t think it would stand very well on its own as a book. It’s just not very focused. But as a compliment to his body of recorded work, it shares some insight.
Which means that to really get the most out of How Music Works, I had to do some homework. I’m fairly familiar with the Talking Heads catalog, and fairly familiar with Byrne’s collaborations with Brian Eno. But I’d never seen Stop Making Sense, so that necessitated a trip to the library. I didn’t know much of Byrne’s post-Talking-Heads solo work, so I tracked down a bit of that. How Music Works is a whole lot richer for having done the background listening.
Most fascinating to me was his discussion of the co-evolution of music and architecture. Byrne makes a compelling case that one of the major reasons Western European and African music sound so different is because of the spaces in which they were performed. African percussive music is intensely rhythmic. It was (and is) performed primary in outdoor spaces, free of echo, where complex rhythms won’t collide with each other. Bring an African drum ensemble into a Gothic cathedral, and it would be a mess. The space would be too reverberant, sounds would sustain and echo, overlap with one another differently based on volume and frequency. Percussive music turns to cacophony in those kinds of spaces.
So Western European music — and Western European religious music in particular — developed without a strong reliance on complex rhythm. It was written to sound good in cathedrals, which means complex harmony and sustained notes — things that sound good in spaces where sounds are drawn out and echoed. The pipe organ is unique as an instrument built into the very architecture itself. As the architecture guided the music, so the music guided the architecture. Wagner had an opera house built specifically for his pieces to be performed. Byrne draws on these sonic histories to talk about how and why CBGB became the hub of the New York art-punk scene, giving flight to acts like the Talking Heads and the Ramones.
So the book is sort of pseudo-history mixed with ethnography. Pseudo-history because it’s not academically rigorous — citations are few and far between, and it’s more about Byrne’s interpretation and opinion of historical happenstance than it is about the history itself. That’s okay, except the semi-scholarly delivery does as much to show what the book is not as it does to actually tell the story. I think Byrne would have been better served to approach it more as a story teller, and to abandon the historical / ethnographic pretense. His best musical authorship tells its stories by what it doesn’t say, and How Music Works comes across as an uncomfortable semi-academic effort that falls in the gap between exposition and storytelling, and doesn’t do either especially well.
That said, it’s still worth a read. Overlook the clumsy delivery and the stories are there, and they’re interesting. Important, even. I don’t know if I’m much closer to knowing how music works, but it’s full of fodder for new ways of framing the question.
Facilitating Group Learning
After nearly fifteen years in the same job, it’s easy to get lazy. Easy to just pass the time, do things the way they’ve always been done, collect the paycheck. When I teach training classes, the temptation to hand-wave is vast — the course modules are mostly on rails, and I can just show up, deliver the material, and call it a day. In most cases, the expectations of the trainees are fairly low — they’re used to low standards when it comes to training, and if you show up with a decent grasp of the English language, they’re usually happy. It doesn’t take much to do a perfectly adequate job.
Facilitating Group Learning was a good shake-up for me to get me out of my mediocre routine. The first important principle of Lakey’s is treating the group as a group, rather than as a collection of individuals. Lakey calls this group cohesion the “container”. By minding the container, the facilitator makes sure not to lose the people on the margins, and instead make sure to use the people on the margins to enhance the group learning experience.
Another useful take-away is that container-building is not conflict-averse. In fact, a certain degree of conflict is necessary as we acknowledge and confront the differences between the mainstream of the group and its margins. Lakey contends that learning can only happen when we’re outside our comfort zone — that there can be no such thing as comfortable transformation, because the act of transforming presupposes discomfort. The principle applies more readily to the kinds of trainings that Lakey does — things like diversity trainings and direct action training — but I think it applies even to mundane things like computer software training. Someone who is completely comfortable isn’t pushed to acquire new skills. The trick is to allow them to be safe — safe to ask questions, safe to step outside of their comfort zone. Minding the group container increases safety while also elevating discomfort.
While Lakey’s direct education model is really aimed at activist educators, the principles and methods should inform anyone working in group learning settings, whether doing Earth First trainings or teaching Sunday school classes.
As a white American, it’s really difficult to talk about issues of race, in much the same way that it’s difficult for a male to enter into a conversation about women’s rights. One has the feeling of walking out into a minefield. We become desperately self-conscious, trying not to say anything that could be construed as racist, while at the same time trying not to say anything that could be construed as patronizing. We weigh and measure every phrase, every word. It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about race that’s simply open and unguarded. And unlike a lot of issues, being better educated doesn’t make talking about it any easier. If anything, it makes it worse. We go beyond phrases and words, and start getting paranoid about subtext and context. We retreat into the realm of theory, where there are no actual people or actual feelings to get hurt. The whole discussion of race becomes, for educated whites, an exercise in abstraction, in part because we hope that nobody can get offended by abstraction, and we want so desperately to be one of the Good Guys.
In popular American literature and film, we take a different approach — one that assumes that there is a white experience, and a black experience. Cop movies usually have the white cop and the black cop. They drive each other crazy, but they learn to get along and defeat the (white) antagonist. Books portray the black as the victim, done in by white society. The Magical Negro shows up to drive Miss Daisy home. The Blacksploitation films of the 1970s gave us the badass jive-talking black man being cooler than cool to a funk soul soundtrack. All of those conversations reflect and create some aspect of racial reality in America. But almost none of them do so with real honesty, with real sincerity. They mostly just repeat stories that people already think they know.
Ellison doesn’t permit himself that luxury. He’s not going to tell the story of a black man repressed by white society. He’s not going to tell the story of a black man with a heart of gold who rises above his circumstances. He’s not going to tell the story of a black man who kicks ass and takes what’s his. Instead, he tells a story with honesty and sincerity. A young black man, raised in the south, eager to prove that he’s better than those ignorant blacks that surround him. A young man embarrassed by poverty, trying to differentiate himself so that he can blend in to the world of wealth, into the world of “success”. He believes that through hard work, through education, through self-sacrifice, he will finally be able to “pass”. Everywhere he goes, he feels the pressure to “uplift the race”. Those he hates most aren’t white racists, but blacks whom he considers to be backwards, who make his own skin color look bad. He ends up in the employ of Marxists, who prop him up as a public speaker to rile up the Harlem ghetto with the rhetoric of class war. Again, his greatest rivals aren’t the white bourgeoisie, but black nationalists who see him as a sellout and a house negro. Eventually, the Marxists demand that he stop speaking in public, because his speeches are too successful, too emotional, and they want time for the rest of “the movement” to catch up. Rather than rising above, the narrator ends up feeling a fool — duped and used at each stage of his life, always a representative of his race, his class, his upbringing, and utterly invisible an individual.
It’s a bold book to write, but clearly it struck a chord with people when it came out in 1952, and continues to strike a chord with people today. It’s one of the few things I’ve read or seen that doesn’t devolve into caricature or tip-toe around the minefield. It’s honest, it’s sincere, and because of that, I feel like I’ve learned a great deal by reading it. There is no black experience in America. There is no white experience in America. There are a multiplicity of experiences, and while race deeply affects those experiences, we rob ourselves when we reduce it to the white cop and the black cop swapping quips and fighting the bad guys in the spirit of racial harmony.
The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look At Betrayer and Betrayed
Bart D. Ehrman
I’ve written before about historical Christianity. The topic is fascinating to me because modern mainstream Christianity is so stubbornly anti-historical. It insists that truth is truth, that the word of god is unchanging and transcends history, that the words and message of the bible are the same now as they were 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. All of which is of course utter rubbish. Early christian scholars argued over whether there was one god or many, whether Jesus was divine, whether the old testament and new testament god were the same guy. Eventually they converged on rough consensus through much political wrangling, execution of their competitors, and a whole lot of book burning.
But every once in a while, some preserved (or partly preserved) text surfaces that shows us just how diverse early Christianity actually was. The gospel of Judas, unearthed in Egypt some time in the 1970s and passed around the hands of various scoundrels and collectors until finally being made public some ten years ago, is one of those texts. Ehrman interprets it as a Gnostic apocalyptic gospel: apocalyptic in that it predicts that the end of the world is imminent, and Gnostic in that it claims salvation comes not through faith, but through secret knowledge. Knowledge that the god of this world is evil. Knowledge that there are other, greater gods that sit above the creator god in the cosmic hierarchy. Knowledge that each of us contains a spark of the true, higher-order divinity, and that only in being released from our physical bodies and the corruption of this world can that divine spark bypass the creator god get back to luminous truth.
This ain’t the pope’s Christianity.
And it gets better — according to the gospel of Judas, of all the disciples, only Judas understood the true nature of Jesus. Only Judas had a Gnostic understand of the world and his place in it. The other disciples thought that Jesus served the god of the world — the evil creator god. Judas alone grasped the truth, and the bulk of the gospel of Judas is composed of dialog between Judas and Jesus, in which Jesus explains the workings of the cosmos, so that Judas my have complete knowledge and so be freed. And Judas returns the favor by “betraying” Jesus — turning him over to the authorities that he may further his divine plan, be released from his physical body, and allow his inner light to return to the divine.
It’s heretical, of course. But Ehrman does well to remind us that heresy and orthodoxy exist only in retrospect. At the time, they are only competing world views. Only after one gains power and prominence can the other be discredited, suppressed, and labeled as heresy. There’s no appealing to the bible to arbitrate the dispute, because the bible itself was assembled from among hundreds of competing and contradictory documents, and the ones that were kept were the ones that fit the orthodox view. Most of the rest were burned.
I find these stories fascinating not because Ehrman’s writing is fascinating; it isn’t particularly. It’s fascinating because the stories themselves just are fascinating, and because Ehrman does a good job of unearthing them and placing them in context, with all of their nuance and contradiction intact.
My introduction to Bob Dylan was decidedly non-standard. Of course, there are many Bob Dylans to whom one can be introduced, but popular radio has long since chosen its champions. Whether it’s the pre-Newport “Blowing In The Wind” or the post-Newport “Like A Rolling Stone”, most people’s entry into Bob Dylan is fairly predictable. Later they’ll debate the merits of Desire vs. World Gone Wrong, but they all know “Like A Rolling Stone”.
I didn’t. Growing up, I had no idea who Bob Dylan was. Music wasn’t a part of our house. There was a hi-fi system — a pretty nice one, actually — but it was turned on once a year, at Christmas time, to play carols during the month of advent. The rest of the year, the stereo lay dormant, awaiting next December.
I’m certain it wasn’t always that way. Nobody buys a quadrophonic hi-fi system to let it sit in the corner. I would guess it was probably because of us. Once there’s a baby in the house, the chances for things like music diminish greatly. And once there were four children in the house, I imagine it was pretty much impossible to find a time of day when at least one infant wasn’t asleep. So the stereo speakers became little more than lamp stands, destined to sing “Frosty the Snowman” but once a year.
On the shelf, beside the hi-fi system, there were rows of reel-to-reel tapes. Not 8-tracks, and not cassette tapes (although we’ll get to those), but reel-to-reel tape spools that you would mount on a spindle, thread through the play heads and onto another spindle, then flip a switch to play. I don’t think most people still had these in their homes, if they ever did. And I don’t think that many record companies release much commercial music in that format. The reels were in plain white cases, with typewritten labels that said things like IRON BUTTERFLY, FLIP WILSON, or LED ZEPPELIN.
This bears some explanation. My father spent most of my early years at sea, on two or three-month tours aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific. That’s a long time to be on a boat with not much to do in the rare off-hours. Record players don’t do well on rolling seas. Cassette recorders were new and expensive. But on every ship were at least a couple of sailors who had access to magnetic tape and a recorder that could copy them, so I imagine a hearty black market in reel-to-reel tape trading came into being. However it came about, stacks of those tapes washed up to die on my father’s bookshelf, never to be played again. He kept the reels long after the player stopped working. I think they eventually got thrown away, unless they still occupy a box somewhere in my parents’ attic.
A small handful of cassette tapes had made their way into the collection, and survived sitting in the back of a closet with a guitar that my father had purchased in Singapore and never learned to play. The cassettes were commercial releases, and each bore a label that said “FOR SALE ONLY ABOARD US NAVAL SHIPS AFLOAT”. One of those cassettes pictured a curly-haired unshaven fellow on the cover. The name of the album was New Morning. The name of the fellow was Bob Dylan.
So at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I put that tape into my newly-purchased boombox and gave it a listen. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I didn’t. I thought it was awful. Laughably awful. Here was this guy, mumbling out of rhythm over weird lite-jazz instrumentation and absurd skat singing. It didn’t make the slightest bit of sense to me. I put the cassette back in the closet and continued listening to Duran Duran for a few more years.
In college, I got the more standard introduction to Bob Dylan: Blowing In The Wind, Highway 61, and all that. Fell in love with Blood On The Tracks. Learned to play most of World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You. Struggled to like Oh Mercy. And then finally found that cassette and listened to New Morning again.
Let’s face it: it’s a weird album. I can’t really blame my 13-year-old self for turning it down. If it had been the only album Bob Dylan had ever made, nobody would have ever heard of it. As a solo album, it doesn’t really stand on its own. But as a Bob Dylan album — as part of the story of Dylan’s career — it’s fascinating. Still strange, but fascinating for that very reason.