Archive for February, 2020

Hagia Sophia: excavating an echo – with the pop of a balloon.

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020
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“The Byzantine Empire was married to water. Jutting out at the tip of a peninsula, ancient Constantinople was embraced by the Bosporus on one side and the Marmara Sea on the other. And at its heart, the magnificent Hagia Sophia. At once a bulwark against the sea and an apotheosis of its marvels, the basilica sparkles like the glints on the restless waters outside its walls as natural light roams the surfaces of marble and gold mosaic. ‘All of these elements are optical: the glitter, the marble …’ says Stanford art historian Bissera Pentcheva. ‘They have an auditory dimension as well. When you speak or chant in that space, your breath is extended and attenuated by surfaces of marble and gold.'”

So begins “Excavating an Echo,” my 2012 Stanford Magazine story on Stanford’s attempt to recreate the sound of the Byzantine Empire through high-tech offices of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, otherwise known as CCRMA (pronounced “Karma”).

It’s an important effort. As I explain:

Hagia Sophia (HAH-yuh soh-FEE-uh) was a massive display of imperial power and majesty for the civilization that endured as one of the most powerful economic, cultural and military forces in Europe for a thousand years. When emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev arrived in the 10th century, they wrote to their liege: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

Yet, today, much of that beauty has been lost to memory. Many of the mosaics are gone. Electric lights have replaced the hundreds of candles that once undulated with sound and breath. Incense no longer perfumes the air. And the ancient chanting that once reverberated in the domed chamber—a sound that influenced the nature of music throughout the medieval world—has been banished from the basilica, now a museum in the adamantly secular nation of Turkey.

The Hagia Sophia vaulting (Creative Commons)

NPR told an abbreviated version of the story over the weekend, with Pentcheva and the hero who did the technical work, Jonathan Abel (“I study the analysis, synthesis and processing of sound”) of CCRMA. The Turkish government was so sensitive about keeping the secular nature of the building, that it was impossible to record anyone singing anything– literally anything – there. Only one solution: bring Hagia Sophia to Stanford University. And they did it with the pop of a balloon, and special permission from the Turkish government.

NPR features the “before and after” sound, with the sound in a room with everyday acoustics, with CCRMA’s adjustments for the architecture of the Hagia Sophia. You can listen to the four-minute broadcast here.  The sound of the music, as someone a millennia ago would have heard it, is literally out of this world: “It’s actually something that is beyond humanity that the sound is trying to communicate,” says Pentcheva.

The sound of the basilica would have been unique:

The reason for this, says Abel, is that “the building is super-reflective of acoustic energy. Sound is smeared out, each note bleeding into the next, rendering speech less intelligible.” In a modern concert hall, he notes, the reverberation time is often less than two seconds. In the recreated space of Hagia Sophia, it was an astonishing 11 seconds. Hence, one note would layer upon another, the sound lingering and harmonizing with the new notes. The reverberation is so dense, Abel says, that a chant of three lines takes more than three minutes to sing.

“It calls into question the text in a sung form, how those words would be understood,” says Cappella Romana executive director Mark Powell. “It was a kind of elevated style where words were elongated so they might be understood in a large crowd. In the ancient world, with no amplification, how would a speech or sermon be delivered?”

Pentcheva wondered if the theology of the words could ever be intelligible in such a place. But, perhaps, it didn’t need to be. The reverberant acoustics transform the human voice into the “bodiless voice of sound reflections,” forcing the listener to abandon the everyday word for the great word, Logos.

For the citizens of Byzantium it was the usual miracle. They would fill the courtyard outside the basilica at night so they could pour into the building for services at dawn.

If the NPR clip has whetted your appetite for more of the sound, try the youtube clip below:

“We were very tired, we were very merry”: Happy birthday to Edna St. Vincent Millay!

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020
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Today is the 128th birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay But this year, I am the one who received the birthday present, courtesy a friend. She is still, I think, one of America’s most underrated poets.

The gift is connected with a story: before I left Ann Arbor for the charms of London, a longtime university friend, the poet Marnie Heyn, gave me a Greek drachma for safekeeping on my travels, with the owl of Minerva on it – a wish for wisdom for the years ahead. I needed it – and all the drachmas I could find. The drachma was kept in my wallet … and so stolen with it from my home in Islington during a break-in.

A few months ago, when Marnie asked me to sign her copy of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardI sent a drachma back to her, with the same owl. She said she was sending me a shekel in return – but it was much more than that.

To my surprise, she sent me a very early edition of A Few Figs from Thistles, the poet’s first 1920 collection, published by Frank Shay. It was the poet’s second collection of poems, famous for establishing her as the very essence of cool in the jazz baby era. I adored her in my misspent youth, and memorized her poems.

Here’s why I was puzzled, however: the copyright page simply lists a 1922 date, implying that this is a first edition. But a little digging around suggested that the 39-page edition I have, basically chapbook size, is actually an expanded edition. Goodness, how many pages could the earlier edition have been? World Cat doesn’t tell me.

Happy birthday to her.

Are you jealous yet? Don’t be! You, too, can celebrate the poet’s birthday. A quick visit to abebooks.com and even Amazon shows that some of these editions are going for a few dollars. So you, too, can own a small chunk of American literary history. And memorize a few poems, too, while you’re at it.

Anyway, below the most famous poem of the collection, in three stanzas of six lines each, couplets, rich with rhymes and assonance and recurring lines, in an unusual pattern of AA BB CC, AA DD EE, AA FF GG. Enjoy. Below that, you can listen to her reading the same poem in her plummy voice. And go here if you want to see her shoes, or here for a letter begging her publisher for cash, and here and here for previous posts.

Happy birthday, Edna!

Recuerdo

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” TONIGHT!

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020
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Schoolgirl days (Vassar Library & Archives)

“If I could not win fame by goodness, I was ready to do it by badness.”

It’s tonight! Another Look takes on Mary McCarthy‘s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, a 1958 National Book Awards finalist for nonfiction. The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on TONIGHT, February 19, in the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. Directions and parking for the event are here.

An excerpt from Charles Poore‘s 1957 review in The New York Times:

In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Mary McCarthy plays a splendid trick on her future biographers by anticipating their researches and confounding their zeal. The book is a collection of stories she has written about her early years. Among them, for example, is “Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?” – one of the most stinging, brilliant and disturbing memoirs ever written by an American.

The autobiographical stories are marinated in italic commentaries that tell how much commonplace veracity or creative mendacity they contain. We are given background and interpretation, amplification and variorum readings on Miss McCarthy’s nomadic childhood from the West Coast to the Midlands, from convent schools to Vassar. And probably the sharpest criticism of her work you can find anywhere.

Now, many an author has done this sort of thing in the past. One thinks, at random, of Henry James‘ wonderfully revisionist prefaces to the New York edition of his works, or the glow of Conrad’s notes for his Canterbury Edition. Didn’t Ring Lardner write a series of brief, confidential overtures to his tales, one of which said: “The story is an example of what can be done with a stub pen”? Miss McCarthy is more generous with her revelations and interpretations. She goes at considerable length into her young religious faith and the agonizing reappraisals that accompanied her loss of it. She traces endlessly the ramifications of a family that contained Roman Catholic and Jewish members, Protestants and agnostics.

The conversation will be led by author Tobias Wolff, National Medal of Arts winner and founding director of Another Look. Panelists include author Catherine Wolff and Another Look regular Inga Pierson, who is also an English teacher at Sacred Heart Preparatory.

We are aware there is a televised Democratic Presidential Debate airing from 6-8 p.m. the same evening. However, we hope you will choose us! (And catch up with the debate or debate highlights afterward. Isn’t that what Youtube is for?) More information on the poster below.

 

My new book (briefly) tops Ross Douthat’s latest – if you blinked, you missed it.

Sunday, February 16th, 2020
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My moment in the sun was brief, but at least one voter gave me a thumbs up over the New York Times‘s Ross Douthat, whose book The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (Simon & Schuster), is currently making waves. (See tweets below.)

The triumph couldn’t be smaller, nevertheless … not bad, considering my book, Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy (Bloomsbury) won’t be out till May 14. You can preorder at discount via the Bloomsbury website here.

From the flap:

French theorist René Girard was one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. Read by international leaders, quoted by the French media, Girard influenced such writers as J.M. Coetzee and Milan Kundera. Dubbed “the new Darwin of the human sciences” and one of the most compelling thinkers of the age, Girard spent nearly four decades at Stanford exploring what it means to be human and making major contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, psychology and theology with his mimetic theory.

This is the first collection of interviews with Girard, one that brings together discussions on Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust alongside the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. Granting important insights into Girard’s life and thought, these provocative and lively conversations underline Girard’s place as leading public intellectual and profound theorist.

And the blurbs:

“’A vital book. It gave me René Girard as I’ve never before encountered him in a text: like looking at a diamond from eighteen different sides. Each interview reveals the fecundity of his thought and the brilliance of a mind that was able to probe the human condition in a singular way. It’s full of fire.’” – Luke Burgis, author of Wanting: Our Secret Economy of Desire (St. Martin’s Press)

“Rene Girard was one of the most influential and important thinkers of the 20th century, much of his wisdom was dialogic in nature, and this volume brings together an excellent collection of conversations with him.” – Tyler Cowen, economist, blogs at Marginal Revolution.

““Covering the full scope of his thinking, from his reflections on desire and rivalry, right through to his final thoughts about modern warfare this really is a singularly valuable collection.”” – Chris Fleming, essayist and author of On Drugs 

“Conversations with René Girard is sure to become an indispensable reference for readers interested in Girard’s views on a wide range of topics, including such hot button issues as abortion, eugenics, same-sex marriage, anorexia, Islam, and Europe’s demographic crisis. Cynthia Haven deserves tremendous credit for bringing these interviews, some of them hard to find, together in one volume.” – George A. Dunn, Centre for Globalizing Civilization, Hangzhou, China

 

“We are the world’s rubbish, the scum of the earth”: A.E. Stallings’s “Letter from the Corinthians”

Wednesday, February 12th, 2020
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We’ve written about Athens-based poet A.E. Stallings and her community’s work with refugees here and here and here. She had been working with the squats in the Greek capital, until the refugees were transported en masse to a makeshift army camp in Corinth, about an hour outside Athens. “Isn’t a camp better than a squat? The government must have thought, out of sight, out of mind. Maybe there was, in the dismay of the eviction, a feeling even within myself that some part of my life was now over, that a responsibility had been lifted.” Time passed, however, and “the news from the families in Corinth was grim, about flimsy tents and inedible food. Families were supposed to be there only a few days before being sent to one of the properly organized camps, but days turned into weeks, and weeks would turn into months. There is a saying in Greek, ‘nothing is more permanent than the temporary.'”

She made the trip to Corinth, and reports back in “Letter from the Corinthians” in  The Times Literary Supplement:

I was surprised to see one Syrian family with several children (and now a new baby) that had long ago made it to Sweden. Deported back to their country of arrival, it turned out. I recognized one of the little boys, Malak, who has Down’s syndrome. I remembered his name because the father had once made a point of explaining his name to me: “Malak is Arabic for Angel”.

The children witness.

The place is at once devastatingly familiar in its squalor (bringing back memories of the tent city that sprang up in Piraeus in 2016), its impoverishment, the almost tangible miasma of waiting (like the invisible toxic chemicals in Elefsina), children in no shoes or ill-fitting ones, playing such games as can be contrived out of gravel and sticks – hopscotch is universal; we also witnessed a lively game of Afghan rock paper scissors – washing hung to dry on the wire fence, an oilcan being used as a stove in the corner. A quotation from Paul hovers at the edge of my consciousness: “Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place … we are the world’s rubbish, the scum of the earth”.

On our way out, some of the families accompanied us, one teenaged girl on the point of tears (being a teenaged girl in such a place must indeed be terrifying), squeezing my hand. She pointed out the food delivery, as a Greek army jeep jolted up to the back entrance, and meals of rice and tomato sauce were delivered in black plastic. It did not look or smell appetizing: the same meal over and over again, and this the sixth week. There was also a piece of feta cheese and an apple. With nothing else to present to us, the families sent us off with the apples. Faith, hope and love abide. The greatest might be love, but hope is startlingly resilient.

Read the whole thing here. 

Take heart! Even Nobel prizewinners get rejection letters. The New Yorker to Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Monday, February 10th, 2020
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Okay, okay … it’s still a few months before he gets the Nobel, but still… it’s heartening to know that even world-famous writers get “no thanks” letters, and on New Yorker letterhead no less. Roger Angell‘s 1981 letter to Gabriel García Márquez comes to us courtesy the University of Texas’s Ransome Center and is making the rounds on Twitter.

Poet Robert Hass at Heyday – on his new book, ecology, lost friends, and Czesław Miłosz. It’s all on Soundcloud!

Friday, February 7th, 2020
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Lunchtime guest Bob Hass

One of the little-known pleasures of Bay Area life is the Heyday Books lunchtime conversations series in Berkeley. Great company, light lunch, and excellent speakers – Robert Alter, David Ulin, among them. Because of the series, I’m running up my mileage back and forth to Berkeley, which, apart from rising gas costs and wear-and-tear on my old Honda, is always a good thing.

And so I made the trek last month to hear Robert Hass, whose latest collection, Summer Snow, is getting a lot of attention. I wrote about that here.

I recognize that not everyone will be able to zap over to San Pablo Boulevard on a weekday. So I have coaxed publisher Steve Wasserman and his assistant, Emmerich Anklam, to provide an alternative, and they have. Lucky for all of us, the Hass event is the debut entry on the Heyday’s brand new Soundcloud page here. Steve moderates the discussion.

You never lose some friends.

Bob is always a fascinating speaker, and he spoke about the dangers to our environment, friends who have died, and the unusual process of putting together Summer Snow. One of his favorite topics is Czesław Miłosz, in fact, that’s how we met. I get plenty of opportunities to talk, so I generally like to be quietly inconspicuous at these events, but an hour into the talk about lost friends and the poems of Summer Snow, he asked for one last question and I couldn’t resist the chance.

My own trepidatious question around the 59 minute mark. Could he read one of his poems about Milosz? In particular, the one about the Miłosz’s tomb at Na Skałce? He hesitated. It was long, he said, counting the five pages. But then, with the encouragement of the crowd, he read the poem, “An Argument About Poetics Imagined at Squaw Valley After a Night Walk Under the Mountain.”

It was an astonishing, dare I say unforgettable, reading. Everyone was moved. One person was crying. Listen for yourself.

One hitch: the battery on the recording device died before the poem ends. So I include the final lines for you below:

One small fly in the ointment:
You described headlights sweeping a field
On a summer night, do you remember? I can quote to you
The lines. You said you could sense the heartbeat
Of the living and the dead. It was a night in July, he said,
In Pennsylvania – to me then an almost inconceivably romantic name –
And then the air was humid and smelled of wet earth after rain.
I remember this night very well. Those lines not so much.

 

“If I could not win fame by goodness, I was ready to do it by badness.” Mary McCarthy’s memoir comes to Stanford.

Monday, February 3rd, 2020
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In school, character is fate.” (Courtesy Vassar Archives)

You think the coronavirus is bad? Novelist Mary McCarthy will tell you about about one of the epic plagues of modern times.

Both her indulgent, fun-loving parents died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Then she and her three brothers were shuttled among relatives, some of them abusive. In her 1957 book, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, she describes it all with merciless wit and frankness.

Now her book is coming to Stanford. It will be discussed at the Another Look winter event at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 19, at the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall.

She was first sent to a Catholic convent school in Seattle, later to an Episcopalian seminary in Tacoma. While appreciating the classical foundation her Catholic education gave her, she defiantly and publicly lost her faith during those years – first as a stunt, then in earnest. She eventually graduated from Vassar.

Toby is leading the discussion.

“She never spares herself at all,” wrote Charles Poore in The New York Times. “The vanities and ambitions, the resentments and misunderstandings, the small triumphs and the scarring disasters that marked her early years are set forth with remarkable candor, so that her book is the most incisive contribution to the story of her development as an artist that we shall ever have.” She was “harshly given every opportunity to become one of the lost, and yet went on to create in modern idioms a style based on classic Latin satire.”

The conversation will be led by author Tobias Wolff, founding director of Another Look and a National Medal of Arts winner. Panelists include his wife, the author Catherine Wolff and Another Look regular Inga Pierson, a former Stanford fellow who brings some personal experience to bear on the subject: she is  an English teacher at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Menlo Park.

Inga’s coming, too.

The event is free and open to the public. Come early for best seats. And Stanford Bookstore on campus, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto are carrying the books.

The Another Look book club focuses on short classics that have been forgotten, neglected, or overlooked—or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short, in order to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Subscription at anotherlook.stanford.edu is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.