Sunday, November 13, 2011

Handel's Messiah makes me cry

I have had a few discussions with my best friend lately re: music, non-popular.

My friend is a violist and I grew up singing in choirs. When we were in college together she played in the orchestra and I sang in the choir. In winter terms the orchestra and the choir tended to present a work together (like Brahms Requiem.)

We are both verbals--she's a poet and I'm...well I'm me. I write essays about myself and post them on the inter-webs and I'm the one the B School students want editing our group paper.

Last week we were discussing choral music and she was lamenting that some of it is, in fact, written in English--because that distracts her from the music. I was saddened by this. It may be because I've been in choirs, or it may be because I'm twitchy, but I get bored by instrumental music with no vocals.

When presented with lyrics in a foreign language (which is most of the time--there were few good English composers) I try to map them on to the English translation. I did this when I was in choir and singing a work and I do it when I'm sitting in the audience listening to the work. I do this because I care about lyrics and what they mean (also, I suspect because it's a puzzle.)

Apparently, not every one does this. I learned this when explaining to my friend how I try to map meaning on to foreign language texts--because the lyrics are as important as the music and so I feel that it's important to understand them. I was surprised to find that she did not think as I did--about as surprised as she was a few weeks ago when she discovered that I can't read music.

"Really?" she asked. "What do you think when you see this?" She asked after googling the music to a Vivaldi piece. I explained that the nice little black dots give me some indication of whether or not the next note was higher or lower than the previous one and let me know what the duration was likely to be, but I really learned music by listening to those around me.

Last night she stopped by my place. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I had put on Handel's Messiah. When she arrived I offered to turn it of because it was Christmas music and she--like me--has worked for a long time in retail and therefore she has developed an antipathy to Christmas Music.

She said however that I need not turn it off because it was "good classical music" although I think he technically is Baroque. "It's not like the Christmas music you hear in the mall." she said, which reminded me of the video I've embedded--which I showed her (technically, no--you don't hear Handel in the mall. But you hear Handel in *this* mall.)

I asked her if the lyrics annoyed her and she said that she couldn't understand them--so they didn't bother her. This was strange to me--the lyrics to the Messiah are in English and since I first heard it sung and learned that in fact the lyric in "For Unto Us a Child is Born" was not "and his name shall be call-ed Wonderful! Bouncible*!" I've been familiar with the lyrics of the Messiah.

We watched the flash mob, remarked on which of the singers reminded us of friends of ours and speculated as to how they might have practiced for this and I didn't cry at all.

Handel's Messiah makes me cry. To a certain extent--good, live classical/baroque music will always have the potential to do so, but the Messiah is a shooin. I have often wondered why this is so. One year at Christmastime I went with my mom to hear my dad's church choir sing the Messiah. A week or so earlier a friend of mine and a member of the choir had killed himself. The pastor mentioned him and dedicated the concert to him. I knew that when the music stared I was going to start leaking at the eyes. I hoped my mom would just assume that I was crying about my friend--because otherwise it's awfully hard to explain.

When presented with something beautiful I sob like I'm heartbroken. I used to think this was so because I was living a life with no beauty in it. Lately I've begun to wonder if maybe the reason that the Messiah makes me cry is because I can understand the lyrics and tie them to the beautiful music with no effort.

I'm not religious, but I can see the beauty and the rightness of the lyrics and how they fit to the music.

Even as I write this it seems an unlikely hypothesis. More likely I cry because the work of Handel is beautiful and the Messiah is emotionally charged--being Christmas music.

Elaboration on that theme is work for another night.

*Wonderful Counselor

Friday, November 11, 2011

Today is Veteran's Day

Today is the 93rd anniversary of the end of the Great War--Veteran's Day.

This is a holiday to honor the men and women who have fought in this country's wars and to thank them for their service.

Last year the wife of one of my colleagues died. I read in her obituary that she had been known to pay the bill for men and women in uniform if she saw them out eating at a restaurant. She did this, the obit claimed, because she loved her country. Having known the lady myself I can attest that she did it because she was an absolute sweetheart, but since reading that I have spent some time thinking about what it means to love your country or to be called to national service.

First--I personally could never be part of the armed forces because I can't be part of an organization who's goal is to kill people. Yes, I know, the army doesn't just kill people. The Corp of Engineers builds bridges and the organization as a whole can do good for the Americans who serve in it by paying for their college educations, teaching them useful skills and, in the case of career service people, giving them comrades and, well, a chance to be all that they can be.

However, I don't think that the armed forces should have a monopoly on serving their country or doing what they do because they love their country. Teachers serve their country by educating people. Doctors and nurses (and nurse's aids, social workers, radiation techs, etc.) in public hospitals serve their country. Civil engineers serve their country by designing bridges that won't fall down.

Before you ask--I am not at all about to imply that everyone serves his or her country professionally (I certainly don't) or even that everyone on the federal payroll serves his or her country (politicians and capitol hill pages? I don't think so.) I am simply trying to point out that we aught to broaden the definition of "serving your country."

It is true that the reason we thank our men and women in uniform differently than we thank our high school history teachers is that history teachers are not often shot at, nor do we require them to shoot at other people. We don't require them to leave their families for long tours of duty either. On the other hand we don't compensate them particularly well either.

I am not suggesting that we change the name of this holiday to People Who Were Willing to Be Shot at To Advance American Foreign Policy Goals Day. I am simply suggesting that we think hard about the nature of service (doing something because it needs to be done, for the benefit of the many--not because it would be profitable to do so.)

Furthermore, I have long wished that there was a way to do national service that didn't involve joining the army. Many countries have a requirement that all people server in the army for one year after college. I think that's a great idea--except for the "army" bit. All people should be required to serve their country for one year. This service should take many forms--if you're a cook you can cook for the country for a year, if you're a geek you can update government websites and answer tech support questions for (heh heh heh).

Everyone should be required at some time during their year of national service to do unskilled labor--whether it's heavy lifting or peeling potatoes. Everyone should be required to do what they do best--whether it's fixing cars or giving financial advice as well. In this way everyone will have done their part to cut down on the unpleasant chores that need to be done to keep the world spinning and everyone will have had a chance to do what they do best in the service of their country.

I admit that this is impractical and unlikely. It might even cost a country more to maintain such a program than the country would gain through its application. It's just something I've been thinking about for a while.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


A friend of mine recently opined that she (like me) was a man's woman-by which she meant that she found it much easier to work with men than women. I also often find that it is easier to work with men than with women.

What a lucky thing for me--since I work in IT in financial services (both of which tend to be heavily male.) I don't mind this most of the time--sometimes it makes things easier for me--I don't feel competitive towards my colleagues as some of the men I work with do. I can talk about XKCD comics instead of talking about royal weddings with my colleagues. But then there are moments like the one I had this afternoon, when it's not okay and I'm an alien.

This afternoon I was working with a couple of colleagues of mine in NJ. We were doing a proof of concept of me logging in remotely and setting up a new PC for someone in NJ*. I was on the phone with the guy who was getting a new PC and my colleague in NJ. It is true that they had me on speakerphone, and that they had worked together longer than I had worked with either of them, but there was something in their shared male laughter that I didn't quite take part in.

It wasn't that they had deliberately left me out of something--rather that there was a confidence and comfort to their discourse that does not, in any form, exist in my business dealings with any of my colleagues.

Upon reflection, I don't think this is a "woman who works best with men" issue--it's more of a "person who doesn't work well with others" problem.

*This was rather complicated--it involved figuring out what programs the user needed and poking around on the network in NJ looking for things that might be installation media, launching them and seeing what happened.