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Nota Bene (On the Title)

Benvenuti al mio blog!

Or, you know, Willkommen, because that’s where I live!

(But I took this photo in London.)

In which I introduce myself and explain the forthcoming venture

This blog will not begin with me. That honor belongs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart’s comic opera Così fan tutte follows two sisters’ madcap scheme to—what else?—marry their men of choice. The Italian libretto, written by longtime collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte (who *FUN FACT* lived for a while in the town adjacent to my Pennsylvania college town), is not among the texts I have studied in eight years of exposure to the language, nor in any opera studies class. But I did sing an aria from it at a workshop, and I can roughly translate the title to “All women do this.”

Really? All women? How disappointing. I mean, I know I take great pains to deceive everyone in my life into believing I’m devoted to one person before zanily swapping them out for someone else, but I figured that was what made me special.

In any event, I’ve modified the phrase for my agenda: the conjugation of the verb fare (to do) is now in the first-person singular. Così faccio io. This is what I do. I am like this—besotted with music, books, film, theatre, language, travel, and all things cultural.

A few other things I am: a brand-new Master of Arts in English Literature, having graduated this past May from Central Connecticut State University; a singer-dancer-actress; an expatriate Berliner; an Anglo- and Europhile; a voracious reader; my own greatest audience for my jokes and monologues; the biggest Beatles fan in almost any given radius; a high-functioning neurotic; and very, very Italian.

I do hope something in that list resonated with you. Even if not, cut me some slack. I’m new here. And the obscure tidbits and minutiae that occur to me might just have occurred to you too. The human mind is an extraordinary thing. It’s boring to explore it alone.

So give me a chance, why don’t you? Or if not, at least give peace a chance. That’s all we are saying.* Right?

*John Lennon is my love. God help the man I marry, if I marry a man, if I marry at all.

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BRAVE NEW WORLD is Not a Dystopia

In which I take arms against a sea of troubles and wind up drowning

MIRANDA

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in’t!

PROSPERO

‘Tis new to thee.

: The Tempest, Act V Scene 1

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

Friends, Americans, countrymen! We have entered the next administration—rung in by an inaugural ceremony which provided nothing short of crushing relief.

On the leeward side of a tempestuous four years, it appeared a proper moment to read Aldous Huxley’s defining opus, published in 1932. Imagine my surprise to find that the dystopia it depicts is…not only closer to a utopia, but really no better or worse than the ‘topia’ I live in.

This isn’t to disparage our ‘topia.’ Or, not exactly. What I mean is that the features of the World State in AF 632 (Anno Ford—about CE 2540) overlap generously with the features of the technologically advanced and overall materially wealthy society we’re used to. Also, the problems it doesn’t account for are problems we have ourselves. It’s a story of people determining how much they want to fit in or stand out. It’s a portrait of family trauma and accidental bonds. It’s a discourse on the coping mechanisms by which we process harsh realities, and the possibilities (and implications) of creating a reality that eliminates harshness altogether. It’s a treatise on what constitutes happiness. And yes, it’s a hierarchical and discriminatory world, but what world isn’t?

Huxley was a pacifist and hailed from a family of biologists, zoologists, and botanists, as well as teachers and writers. These factors inform his work deeply, and they took me aback. I steeled myself to witness the paramilitary violence rampant in our own state—don’t tell me if I’m thinking of Orwell’s 1984, I haven’t read it and I don’t care—but suffice it to say that in Brave New World there is essentially none.

Unless you count a bioengineered social structure a form of intrinsic violence. The nuclear family does not exist: mother and father are all but profanities. Human beings are conceived in batches from the mitosis of a single embryo with one of a selection of DNA, grown on assembly lines based on Henry Ford’s model, then ‘born’ from decanters and raised in one of five aptitude-based social strata, Alpha down to Epsilon. A series of Pavlovian experiments conditions them for consumption and complacency. Ultimately some go to work at actual jobs, while others’ job is merely to consume. Through a regimen called hypnopedia, they absorb slogans and jingles about the world so as to come into the world convinced of both the superiority of their own stratum and the necessity of the others. “Everyone belongs to everyone else.” “We can’t do without anyone.” “Ending is better than mending.” “Wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure.” Wait, no, that last is the catchphrase of Ravenclaw House at Hogwarts. (The World State never prizes wit except as funneled into propaganda—hence the plight of gifted yet disillusioned head rhyme-writer Helmholtz Watson.)

Sleep-learning reinforces these ideas to the point that they can, and regularly do, quote them reflexively in couplets. It’s as if the advertising industry skipped the middleman of a product and went straight to marketing a (government-sponsored) way of life. The endgame of capitalism, if you will. Meanwhile, the corporeal design is universally youthful, and blood transfusions keep even the oldest people spry—when they do eventually die, around age sixty, they are ushered off without fanfare, and children are conditioned to embrace the concept by being given candy on ‘death days.’

Clearly we’re dealing with a limited range of human experience. But the government doesn’t look at it that way: indeed, it believes it is preserving its citizens from the barbarism and indignity of natural life. The Nine Years’ War and accompanying economic collapse (their ‘tempest’), after which the new regime came to power, incited the destruction of all cultural and historical institutions—museums, textbooks, etc.—which prompt people to feel and, thus, to be unstable. As Mustapha Mond, World Controller for Western Europe, articulates to a group of Alpha students near the beginning of the novel, people must be conditioned identically in order to be spared the agony of individual suffering/sentimentality/attachment as plagued the olden days of family and liberalism and democracy; and the morals of the state must be so ingrained into their consciousness as to be less ‘truth’ than ‘indisputable fact.’ The global motto is, after all, Community—Identity—Stability.

How many of our own cultural institutions have been called into question? How much have we been tortured by an inability to distinguish—or accept—truth?

Furthermore, the people don’t feel their experience is limited. As far as they’re concerned, the state has set them “free to have the most wonderful time.” They fly in personal ships: they are presented with an array of synthetic entertainments—the ‘feelies’ are movies with physically titillating special effects; they contract almost no diseases; and they have at their disposal a drug called soma. Should they ever find themselves in discomfort, they take a tablet (or several) and their emotions are regulated. If they take enough, they fall into a sleep which functions as a holiday, allowing them to travel wherever their hearts desire. Psycho-soma-tic. What occurs in the mind manifests in the body.

There are even slogans for soma: “‘Was’ and ‘will’ make me ill. I take a gram and only am.” “One cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments.”

Oh, and they love Henry Ford. He is the focal point of the closest thing they have to a religion: they use his name as an oath, build their calendar around the date of the Model T’s debut, and even change the name of Big Ben to Big Henry. That ‘Ford’ is sometimes conflated with ‘Freud’ speaks volumes: this is a society that conflates technological progress with a less inhibited, more virtuous existence. Technology is good. Technology is equivalent to goodness. Had the novel appeared post-Apple, Steve Jobs would be a minor deity. As he arguably is to us now.

Additionally, because reproductive sex is obsolete, erotic experimentation is encouraged from a young age; and after one ages into regular sexual activity, promiscuity is not only permitted but practically expected. When we meet Lenina Crowne (pronounced Lenin-a, as in Vladimir), a Beta nurse, her biggest problem is being judged for having had a four-month fling with one man—being a veritable anti-Hester Prynne. Despite her friends’ nagging about upsetting the balance, she has no plans to pursue any other sexual partners.

Any, that is, except Bernard Marx. (There are other characters named Benito, Engels, Trotsky. Subtle it ain’t.) Bernard is an Alpha-Plus whom his fellow Alphas demean for his stunted stature. He’s a kind of Quasimodo, an outsider despite belonging to the highest class—or a George Harrison, if you prefer, underappreciated and more embittered by the day. It’s clear that his value as a sleep-learning specialist is his sole means of influence. ‘Miserable,’ he’s usually described; his boss, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning at London’s fetal-development facility, looks out for an opportunity to fire him over his surly attitude.

See, Bernard is Not Like The Other Workers. He believes life is more than a homogenous cycle of distractions and games. He isn’t impressed by the Solidarity Services praising Ford and his industrial innovation, working citizens up into an orgasmic frenzy. And he derides Lenina’s penchant for the empty spoils of the system. When she insists that it can’t be that bad if “everybody’s happy nowadays” (the excellent Buzzcocks song takes its title from this passage), that’s precisely Bernard’s objection.

Still he invites her along to New Mexico to study the “pre-moderns” who practice natural birth and still speak Zuni and Spanish at an Indigenous reservation (in our terms) known as Malpais—even a rudimentary familiarity with Romance languages will get you ‘evil country.’ Lenina requires large doses of soma after witnessing their supposed atrocities; but she and the odd young man John, aka ‘the Savage,’ are drawn to each other.

How may I describe John? John is an idealist to Bernard’s cynic. During a dark childhood, in which he came to recognize his mother Linda as the village ‘whore’ despite the fact that the men who visited her were the adulterers, he learned to read—and make sense of the world—from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He quotes the plays extensively and demonstrates a preference for Miranda’s titular exclamation. His vision of love has been so shaped that, when Lenina expresses her desire in a typically physical fashion, he renounces her for what he considers her looseness, causing her to flee in fear. (Unsurprisingly, just about all his misogynist citations come from Hamlet. The word ‘strumpet’ crops up a lot.)

When Bernard brings John and Linda back to the London facility, they wreak just the havoc he’s hoped for by revealing themselves to be his boss’s long-lost girlfriend and son. (Cue the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme.) The flabbergasted Director resigns in shame, while everyone else becomes instantly obsessed with John—and, by extension, with Bernard.

If instability is public enemy #1, these two interlopers embody it. So you might forgive me for anticipating swift and terrible retribution. Not so. Linda, whose aged and distended appearance is belabored by both narrator and community, wastes away under soma in a “Hospital for the Dying.” Her son’s grief is gruesomely fascinating to all; and when he starts a riot by throwing away great quantities of soma tablets, the police’s tack is to spray the gathering with soma vapor. Go to all lengths to maintain calm and happiness.

John’s subsequent debate with Controller Mond is a chapter worthy of Tolstoy. Political, spiritual, spanning the meaning of free will and the purpose of humanity. Even as the disgraced Bernard is exiled to a remote island for his long-sought chance to be an individual—a fate he now curses—John is usurping him as ‘protagonist’ and ‘hero,’ if these are the correct terms. John resists Mond’s philosophies, demanding, as Mond summarizes it, the right to grow sick, frail, and reliant on God, and “to be unhappy.” He also makes a big deal of having a name, which foreshadows another John (Proctor, of The Crucible) by a couple decades.

The supreme irony is that this ‘Savage’ would be extraordinarily erudite by present-day standards. Mond, who would be on the same level, recognizes the extent of John’s knowledge—he himself keeps some Shakespeare and other forbidden texts inside a safe—and enumerates his reasons for the population’s benighted condition in a sort of Socratic Apology. Well, they’ve both got a Socratic edge. There is an air of The Republic, perhaps even of the Pilate/Jesus dynamic, to the dialogue. It’s a section that sets me reeling.

John then removes to the countryside for a life of asceticism. Henceforth he is referred to only as ‘the Savage,’ though he fulfills his final ‘John’ identity (John the Baptist) by engaging in self-punishment. He lashes himself in imitation of the Malpais ritual, attempting to purge himself of lust. This performative suffering draws a crowd over the course of days, for no one has ever conceived of passion or emotion so strong as to provoke violence. Nevertheless, the thirst for blood sport is quickly aroused. They egg him on until he attacks a spectator—Lenina, the victim of the mounting conflict between his longing for Shakespearean intimacy and his horror of the mercenary quality of sex. At last, unable to reconcile his environment with his ideals, he hangs himself. The state has actively perpetrated nothing; he is driven to enact his own demise.

I hesitated to use either ‘protagonist’ or ‘hero’ earlier. I’m not sure there is one. John would seem to be, his forgotten thousand-year-old poetry noble and refined in contrast to the infantile rhymes of the World State…but isn’t the hero supposed to win? Bernard could be justifiably classified as an antihero: his longtime wish is granted (cue “I Want to Break Free”) the moment it’s too late, after he is addicted to the acceptance and prestige accorded him by his ‘discovery’ of John. Sour grapes indeed. What does it mean to win in such an environment? Who comes out on top?

Therein lies the quandary we face, too, I think. It seems the idea is to hold the World State in contempt and to reject its proposal of hyper-surveillance; but it also seems the rulers act on a conviction that harmony is secured via the happiness of the ruled. Communal living and child-rearing are even practiced today by the Kalahari bush people, reportedly among the happiest societies on earth. Wouldn’t the offer of a life with guaranteed health, security, and company hold at least a little appeal?

Besides, have we not already succumbed to hyper-surveillance, if in slightly different forms? Are we not as comfortable, and as subservient? We wonder how much ‘soma’ it will take to satisfy us—our soma being our phones, sources of bottomless preoccupation, enjoyment, and solace, liminal spaces where we trade personal information for hits of dopamine. Plugging in invites further plugging in: to opt out would be antisocial. No matter how much we get, we’ll want more.

And who’s to say we are treated to the full range of human experience? Capitalism and consumerism put us in constant anxiety. All manner of trauma prevent us from living to the fullest. We fall prey to bitter infighting over divergent belief systems as opposed to directing our energy toward the forces that keep us all down. We suffer all sorts of hang-ups around sex. The pharmaceutical industry has us dependent on various substances. Like Bernard’s friend Helmholtz Watson, we hunger to do real substantive work. We live in fear of our neighbors’ judgment. We die of disease too soon. To be sure, we are hampered at every turn.

Yet we light upon things to be happy about all the time. We somehow soothe our nerves and bury our hatchets, even if we’ve found ourselves with a bunch more hatchets these days than we ever remembered having. Are we engaging in our own kind of self-flagellation? Is our happiness more significant because of the light it provides in the darkness of the world? Or would we do better to do away with that darkness and design a world of permanent light and content?

Gee, I didn’t even get to talk about Helmholtz, the character with whom I might empathize most. Or about Shakespeare, and what exactly all this has to do with The Tempest and its themes. Or about Ford. Do you know how little of my time I’ve devoted to Henry Ford? I probably haven’t intentionally thought of him since Schoolhouse Rock.

Maybe the point I’m arriving at is that if this fictional culture is dystopian, then so is our nonfictional one. Maybe I’m so disarmed at having read about voluntary submission, rather than a police state marked by brute force, that I don’t know whether to find it abhorrent or attractive. Maybe I’m left with no point at all. Huxley has handed me more enormous ideas than I can juggle gracefully. My cones are really scrambled here.

Mond was right about having to choose between happiness and high art. Good Ford.

Anyhow, there’s no need to panic. We stand nose to nose with that brave new world, equally capable of wonder and woe. The question of how to govern with dignity and induce national flourishing is at the forefront of minds everywhere. After a tempest of political and economic damage, where do we go from here? Whatever the answer, whatever’s to come, we are present for it and part of it.

So…give me your hands if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends. Hang on, that’s not a fairy from The Tempest. But the comedies could’ve made a better showing. Forget it. I’m going to scroll through my phone until I fall asleep.

P.S. I’d like Huxley to know that his shout-out to Kurfürstendamm did not fall on deaf ears. That’s where my friends and I go to get wrecked on rose-petal cake and fancy cappuccinos. Thank you, sir. I feel seen.

Dedicated to Gillian—hoping for more bookish conversation.

Image: first edition

The Strange Mirror of UNORTHODOX

In which I consider what makes a home

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

A couple months have passed since I watched Anna Winger’s four-part Netflix series Unorthodox, based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir, and I’m working through how close it hit to home. Not in terms of Judaism, in terms of my physical location. The action is divided between Brooklyn and Berlin: the heroine flees her life in the former to start over in the latter. And it’s set in the present day, so it couldn’t feel more immediate.

We observe nineteen-year-old Esther “Esty” Shapiro throughout the time periods on either side of her marriage to Yanky Shapiro. All seems in order for her to take her place as a woman in the New York Hasidic community that raised her. Hers has been a more communal upbringing than others’, having been left long ago by her mother and let down by her alcoholic father. Esty shares a deep bond with her grandparents and extended family: they, particularly her grandmother, foster her love of music.

But her union with Yanky gets off to a rocky start, especially where their sex life is concerned. Esty takes a while to become comfortable with intimacy, and her husband grows more anxious and suspicious the longer she goes without conceiving. Ultimately Esty elects to break from the community and track her mother down. With the covert help of her piano teacher, from whom she continued to take lessons despite her husband’s disapproval, Esty secures passage to Berlin and slips away one afternoon.

What follows is a discovery of roots, passions, and history the likes of which I think can happen only in a place as loaded as Berlin. Friendless and afraid of what awaits her, Esty seeks refuge among a group of conservatory students who both encourage her musicality and challenge her skills as a pianist. She does finally come face to face with her mother, the consequences of which I won’t divulge. And meanwhile, Yanky and his cousin Moishe are on Esty’s trail.

It’s hard to describe what a trip it was just to see shots of the city I had at my doorstep. Weißensee. Alexanderplatz. The yellow of the trams, the familiar curve of their movements. The linguistic fluidity fascinated me too; Esty and her family often communicate in Yiddish, which is sort of a corrupted form of German, though it is clear when she lands on German soil that she has no grasp of actual German. As for the soundtrack, Schubert’s art song “An die Musik” (To Music) recurs at intervals, from a recording on Esty’s grandmother’s turntable to Esty’s performance during an audition at her newfound friends’ academy.

Guess what? That piece was a staple of my college voice lessons. I sang it in a chamber not unlike hers for an audience not unlike hers.

I’ve been in Berlin just over a year and a half now, and still I hesitate to confer that weighty four-letter word on it. It’s certainly the place where I live and where I have learned to conduct an independent adult life…but home? I’ve always been a little unsure of that word: it’s a somewhat fraught concept in my scattered, itinerant family. Watching a girl from a radically different environment arrive in Berlin under radically different conditions and yet grapple with the same questions made me feel seen and represented in a way I hadn’t at all expected.

Mazel tov to the creators!

Image: omg that’s my best friend in the background

It’s getting to the point…

In which it’s a matter of mind over music—or is it?

Yesterday a favorite podcaster of mine who often engages in discussions of mental health issues—and who is herself studying to be a therapist—read out a message from a female listener who described her boyfriend’s unwillingness or inability to help her through an emotionally turbulent period. And I thought, sounds like a classic Stephen Stills situation.

I refer to the pop epic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which Stills wrote and which his supergroup Crosby, Stills, & Nash released in the autumn of 1969 as a single off their debut album. The work was inspired by Stills’ rapidly deteriorating romance with fellow singer Judy Collins. Now, I’m not exactly a fan of Collins, but if either of them is going to get my sympathy in this case, it ain’t Stills.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve loved the song from the first listen. I don’t even remember the circumstances, but the impact of those opening lines on me was immediate and lasting. I was very young, for sure, and considered psychological turmoil just something you learned to carry on your own: I didn’t know really good relationships were about sharing burdens and offering mutual support. It was hard for me to imagine trusting a friend in that way, so the idea of a romance with that kind of dynamic was as yet totally beyond me. But the harmonies quieted those questions and lulled me away.

That said, age and experience have put me more and more at odds with the perspective the song expresses. Not many songs, especially at the time, contained mention of mental illness at all, let alone as a clinical condition that required treatment or ‘work’—outside of the work everyone did, which was simply not talking about it. (In an extreme example of the distractions and outlets we invented for ourselves, our involvement in Vietnam was at its height.) Stills felt that his relationship with Collins was suffering for numerous reasons, one being a routine of therapy sessions that placed constraints on her time. The days and times of the week listed in the second movement (Friday evening / Sunday in the afternoon) correspond with those sessions. I doubt Stills consulted Collins before adding this personal detail; it seems not to have kept her from admiring the final product, but it reads to me nonetheless like an invasion of privacy.

Mostly because I get the impression that narrator-Stills resents addressee-Collins’ commitment to getting help and doesn’t give credence to the idea that she could be in need of medical attention. He blames it for taking her away from him and responds reactively, never mind her opinions on her own health. He is essentially passive.

And then—rather audaciously, if you ask me—in a song with a lot of lines, the one repeated most often is “You make it hard.” She makes it hard? Fact is, buddy, if she felt comfortable opening up to you she might be leaning on you instead of a licensed professional. Ideally both would be available to her. But you’ve demonstrated that you are not receptive, so what choice does she have?

The lyric has a lot of love in it, in fairness, even if with an air of ‘let’s try to stay together for the sake of the history.’ I just think narrator-Stills is taking the easy way out and complaining when he hasn’t exhausted all avenues that could lead him to understand his partner’s point of view. If he really cares for her, that is, as he claims to. The last thing she needs when she is struggling is to be with someone who not only doesn’t understand her but is losing interest in investing the effort. Heck, maybe going to a session of his own would bring him to the light.

It’s an early and important blueprint for songwriting that includes mental and emotional wellbeing in analyses of relationships. At the same time, it emphasizes how far we have to go—after all, we first have to normalize the idea of therapy if we hope to make those services universally accessible. To filter it through the recent Twitter trend “men will literally [insert verb here] instead of going to therapy,” we’re looking at “men will literally write a seven-minute pop song instead of going to therapy.” And how beneficial is that in the end?

Not that I’m about to stop listening to it. It’s so dang pretty. I was singing it one day around the house when I was probably thirteen, and my mom joined in for a few bars before pausing to compliment my taste in music. Once it gets Mom’s approval, it stays in rotation FOREVER.

Image: the single, September 1969

We’re in Urinetown

In which I’m filled with symbolism and things like that

It’s the oldest story:

Masses are oppressed

Faces, clothes, and bladders all distressed

Rich folks get the good life

Poor folks get the woe

In the end it’s nothing you don’t know

: “Too Much Exposition”

For nearly a week now—beginning, with eerie prescience, shortly before domestic terrorists attempted a coup on the U.S. Capitol building—I’ve been attentively playing the soundtrack of the 2001 Broadway musical Urinetown, whose creative melodies and comical asides satirize our economic systems under a not-entirely-inconceivable premise. It’s relevant enough because of what a plausible mask-era production it could make. It’s more relevant because at present, with public health and political affairs in the state they’re in, my home country seems to be drawing closer than ever to the titular metaphor.

As we gain more and more of a perspective on the pandemic and the changes it’s imposed upon our lives (particularly the policing of what we wear and how we behave), I have tried to diagnose the special brand of misery that has swept the United States, a supposedly advanced nation with a host of really basic dysfunctions. My friends, family, and curated Twitter have documented a totally unique experience of hell and a totally unique hope to go along with it. Meditating on this documentation and why it feels familiar, all at once I realize that it reminds me of a show about literal hope—and heavy policing. That what I’m witnessing is both Urinetown the musical and Urinetown the location.

The plot, for those unfamiliar, follows a community impoverished by a devastating water shortage and by the resulting corporate privatization of public toilets (known as ‘amenities’). Essentially, everyone has to pay to pee. The most disenfranchised of the townspeople rally behind a young idealist, Bobby Strong, after he leverages his job at a local amenity to stage an uprising. Bobby faces a conflict of interest in the form of Hope Cladwell, daughter of the big corporation’s head honcho, which leads to a kidnapping and a standoff and other events necessary to a proper revolution. And all the while they are haunted by the spectre of “Urinetown,” the universal and mysterious punishment for citizens who pee freely and illegally. (“Did you hear the news? They carted old so-and-so off to Urinetown the other day.” “Is that so? What’d he do?” “Oh, such-and-such, I hear.”)

It’s kept from being a classic Robin Hood social-justice morality tale by two factors: the rebellion really isn’t very well organized; and the ruling establishment, while draconian, does in fact provide for the people by conscientiously managing the water supply. In any event, the action is set up and guided by Officer Lockstock, resident Sheriff of Nottingham, who has at least made his peace with brutalizing offenders and sending them to Urinetown even if he may not actively enjoy it. His partner on the beat, in case you hadn’t guessed it, is Officer Barrel—the names are pretty symbolic, if by ‘symbolic’ we mean blatantly obvious.

In a more innocent time I listed the opening number among my favorites. It introduces Lockstock and his narrative counterpart, an irreverent street urchin called Little Sally, as thoroughly self-aware characters in a show which they can tell is not going to be happy. But just because it isn’t happy doesn’t mean it isn’t fun…and the score arguably only gets better. Various styles of theatrical number are parodied, from the love duet (“Follow Your Heart”) to the angry-mob anthem (“Look at the Sky”) to the quote-unquote victorious finale (“I See a River”). And, like all good parody, they’re fine examples of those styles in their own right. There are equally excellent numbers which I think are meant to be taken at face value: the gospel-inspired “Run, Freedom, Run”; the How-to-Succeed-esque “Mr. Cladwell”; the jazzy, ensemble-based “Snuff That Girl”; the character- and scene-establishing “Cop Song.” You could easily leave a performance humming any of these tunes.

The overture, too, is first-rate. I’d forgotten what a model it is until this most recent listen. Clocking in at 1:13, it sets the mood with a choppy tempo and discordant melody, switching between major and minor modes, letting us know we’re in for a couple hours of bittersweetness and tension. It’s an independent composition—its musical ideas never resurface, nor is it a medley of the subsequent ideas—and yet it is unmistakably representative of the show’s personality. (I love the overture to West Side Story for the exact opposite reason: it gives us a taste of so many melodies which have since become classics, and once the orchestra reaches the “Tonight” section I know they’ve hit their stride and start to get really excited.) It asserts its point and then makes way for the story.

Not to mention you’d be hard pressed to find a musical theatre score which showcases the clarinet more superbly; it’s flooring how much love composer Mark Hollmann lavishes on the woodwinds.

Wait just a minute, why have I gone off about the music? Well, if you think about it, the soundtrack to 2020 was undeniably strong. Good music doesn’t stop us getting where we’re going. Sometimes it simply highlights it.

This is a work of folk horror, as charming as it is chilling, as winking as it is wicked. (Like Midsommar, only way funnier and way better.) It makes you laugh even in the face of the grim truths it presents about your world—as Lockstock retorts to Little Sally’s criticisms, “Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?” Even first-time offenders of the peeing regulations get Urinetown: the authorities famously take no prisoners. Which would mean, if we were to apply that principle to our own mask mandate, that the U.S. population would be reduced by half. It’s a discussion of how much/little difference individual choice makes in a society preoccupied with surviving. And yet the bureaucrats sit at the top of this society, not only surviving but thriving.

The original Broadway production rang almost too true to its time, more so than the cast and crew could have imagined while preparing it. That is to say it opened nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and what was already a dark comedy became, well, a really dark comedy. Think about the immense contextual implications of a line like

What is Urinetown?

Urinetown is here

It’s the town wherever people learn to live in fear

Likewise, the art released since last March has been lent a new resonance by the atmosphere—Fiona Apple’s record, for example, was made largely in her home featuring many household surfaces as instruments, long before we were ever instructed to stay indoors. These artistic statements bear the mark of the environments that receive them; they become even more meaningful than they were on merit alone.

So what if it’s distasteful content, or an ugly title? It’s no uglier than the situation we’re faced with now. And at least they’re not squabbling over toilet paper—I’ve reason to believe that would get you Urinetown as well.

Dedicated to Celeste and Christa, whose respective productions made me a fan in the first place.

Image: original Broadway cast

Lit Review: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

In which I play the Cecilian Defense

*WARNING: SPOILERS*

I suspect I was always one nudge away from playing chess.

Growing up I might have had the makings of an enthusiast if I hadn’t devoted almost all my energies to literary pursuits. Or if I hadn’t been so troublesome at board games, a jealous player and a sore loser. Besides, whatever I chanced to learn about the game and its attendant environment was decidedly off-putting. Competitive chess seemed like an insular world full of…not very nice people. Through no fault of their own necessarily, but the trend is there. (Bobby Fischer was a noted misogynist.)

Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit and its Netflix incarnation, which I consumed in that order, seem largely to subscribe to this atmosphere. In a way, Beth Harmon is made for such a world. Orphaned at eight, she is quick to strategize, frank and open only when it suits her—hence her conscription of Mr. Shaibel, the orphanage janitor, to teach her the fundamentals of chess. She advocates for herself in a way that befits her situation, briskly and ruthlessly, asking questions and challenging authority until she has everything she needs to go after what she wants. This practice serves her incredibly well in her craft and also expedites her downfall.

Normally I’m wary of men writing women, so I suppose the fact that I regularly forgot that the author was male is a good sign. (Both Tevis and Nate Hawthorne did a pretty good job, and they’re the only ones who come to mind.) But then my experience of the book was filtered through a female voice on Audible; I felt the narrative firmly in a woman’s control. My impressions of certain characters were also influenced by the reader’s choices—for instance, she lent Alma Wheatley an accent that the actress in the series lacked, which highlighted the decisions (even the assumptions) I made about the character completely unconsciously. Always remember that the human voice is an instrument of power.

The book reads like a meticulous step-by-step thought process. Beth approaches her goals, from winning a match to scoring extra tranquilizers, with the same steady method and the same unbound desire behind it. This blind forge ahead, letting the reader know no more than she knows, makes for a narrative which often entranced me. The series brings that thought process to life with arresting visuals; I liked watching Beth tear open the canopy on her bed for a better mental picture of the board on her ceiling. And the small details are just as revealing, like the hotel room scene where Beth and her mother drink beer together for the first time, their legs crossed identically, foreshadowing a perilous life cycle. It won’t be long before Alma is gone, and by then Beth is on a self-destructive path.

In both the book and the series, I appreciated Alma’s nuance and depth. She is an active participant in her adoptive daughter’s story; she commits to her maternal role, doing a significant part to help Beth along to success (saddling her with emotional baggage, too, but hey, parents). She pursues independence; she has a fling with Manuel in Mexico City; she plays the piano, and is eventually able to accept the praise of listeners. It made me realize how many Orphan Stories default to neglectful, abusive, or just plain absent adults. Mr. Alton Wheatley fits that stereotype, showing little regard for anyone’s welfare but his own, and it would be too easy for Alma to check out after he abandons her. But she subverts our expectations and determines to change her life; by investing in Beth, she invests in herself. Not to mention she gets a sex life, which we hardly ever see for middle-aged women. Take that, Dickens!

As Beth’s circle widens, other likable folk enter her orbit. The Russian boy Girev wants to know all about drive-in movies. Viewers see Benny Watts as an amusing, intriguing Lone Ranger type; readers know him as meeker-looking, though certainly no less capable of blowing up at her when she asks him to join her in Moscow. And then there’s my bid for the greatest character—Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jo-leeeeeene!—with whom Beth’s relationship is much more complicated in the novel than in the series. One day at the orphanage Beth calls her, to her face, a word we don’t say anymore. This exchange comes on the heels of a sexual encounter Jolene tries to initiate while Beth lies awake immersed in her ceiling game. They are, respectively, thirteen and nine.

Jolene backs off when Beth rejects her, steering clear of assault. But in light of Beth’s own encounters later on, I would classify the scene as queer-baiting: leading us to believe queerness will be a plot point or source of self-actualization for the protagonist, then never bringing that idea to fruition and making her by all appearances heterosexual. What’s more, the experience affects Beth’s future perceptions—sex consistently disappoints her, whether with Harry Beltik or Benny or anyone else. There is no ‘redeeming’ moment, as in the series when she is with Benny in New York and gasps, “That’s what it’s supposed to feel like!”

Perhaps all that was a bit too real for Netflix. Too little glamour, too much grit.

Anyway, these personalities collectively softened me toward Beth and induced me to feel for her in a way I probably would not have otherwise. I found her too calculating at times, especially in the novel—now I will drink, now I will have sex, now I will fly in a plane—narrowing her itemized list in accordance with how she thinks a human life ought to be spent. Her maturing did strike me as more organic onscreen than on the page, for what it’s worth.

I recognized a bit of myself in her, which could explain my wariness. While I can’t remember having played a single full game of chess, I can remember sharing Beth’s ambition to be the youngest, sharpest, fastest in the room. In the series, when she crosses paths with Townes in Las Vegas, he tells her she has outgrown ‘prodigy’ status, an observation which in the novel is reserved for her own inner monologue. This only adds to the pressure. The ambition, and accompanying paranoia, is as self-sustaining as it is corrupting: the longer you stay at the top of your field, the farther you’ll go to maintain your post, and the more distorted your worldview becomes.

Over the course of the narrative, including at the end, I wished to see Beth truly love something or someone. The novel’s third-person narrator remarks during her fateful match with world champion Vasily Borgov that the only thing she is certain that she loves is “a win.” Having journeyed with her, I understand the attachment. But I feel I have yet to see her truly happy. Even winning at chess she takes with the detachment and cool composure that she brings to playing it. And the hunger, always the hunger. Each win spurs her on to a bigger, better, more prestigious win.

Either that, or I wanted to see her lose to Borgov. Face up to her own shortcomings—including the permanent repercussions of her addictions—then ready herself for a comeback, like Scarlett O’Hara scheming to win back Rhett Butler.

Now, you jaded readers know as well as this jaded writer does that life provides few proper resolutions. I don’t claim that the story should end with one. Since she begins with herself and chess, though, I hoped Beth would finish with something more than…herself and chess. Maybe it’s all she needs. Maybe her telephone teamwork with Benny and the guys, brief reunion with Jolene, and frenmity (??) with Borgov are enough for her. Obviously she plans to vie for the title in two years’ time. If she’s satisfied, well, far be it from me to begrudge a fictional character her solitary success.

One final note: had it been up to me, my instinct would have been to call it The Sicilian Defense, given Beth’s long-standing affinity for the move. But I can see how the author arrived at his title.

Image: from E3, “Doubled Pawns,” during a classic erotic setup—a photo shoot, courtesy of Townes—that goes wrong

The Greatest Jazz Album…?

Or, a Christmastime observation

I’m relying on holiday tunes more heavily than usual this year to keep the spirit of the season alive in relative isolation. I can’t help listening a little more closely, perhaps only because I can. Among the records on regular rotation is, for self-evident reasons, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. And I’m coming to conclude that it might just be the strongest collection that the school of jazz has produced thus far.

I don’t say this because the songs are the most virtuosic ever to be committed to vinyl or even necessarily superlative compositions in and of themselves—with the exception of “Linus and Lucy”—but because this album has almost singlehandedly induced generations of people to accidentally enjoy jazz.

Jazz is a maligned, polarizing genre. People use it against one another: it’s either “I like jazz, which makes me sophisticated, therefore I’m better than you” or “Jazz is for stuck-up snobs, and I see through that façade, therefore I’m better than you.” Over a couple days in the studio, these guys made the brilliant move of filtering the elements of jazz through traditional Christmas melodies and original additions, acclimating even the most casual listeners and giving them something simultaneously accessible and novel. The improvisation, which seems to be the component that intimidates or turns off many avowed non-fans, is low-stakes and easygoing in this setting: “O Tannenbaum” is a relaxed meditation within a familiar chordal context. And the set of lyrics to “Christmas Time is Here” beats the set of lyrics to “Sleigh Ride” by leaps and bounds. (That was an orchestral piece for a reason. Leave Leroy Anderson alone.)

Although I think I prefer the instrumental anyway; it has a certain inimitable atmospheric melancholy. The brushwork on the drums is just otherworldly. It sounds cold.

The whole really exudes a wintry chill, the sonic interpretation of a Christmas fraught with loneliness and depression, which is what the TV special is all about. And yet there remains a lightness, a levity, a spark of hope that there is some rhyme or reason to the whole holiday rigamarole. Regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas, you can identify with that search for higher meaning, especially at the end of another year. Jazz is a precarious balance of order and chaos, freedom and structure, a host of barely contained ideas and themes gingerly strung together. Isn’t that Christmas?

So that’s what sets this album apart. It manages to become the very thing it attempts to describe, and, in doing so, unite listeners of all musical proclivities. It rings true; it lets disbelievers know that there is truth in jazz. Despite your protestations that you could never or would never ‘get into’ the genre, if you like this album, you kind of already have.

I also think piano-based jazz is easier to digest for those who are not immersed in the oeuvre. Or maybe I’m biased toward the piano. Or maybe I’ve drunk too much wine over the past two weeks to have any regard for the people who would say that the point of jazz is not to be easy to digest. Or maybe it’s the Italian in me, going for composers with Italian names.

If anything, I’m reminded with each passing post that the Peanut I resemble most is Linus, as I am full of facts and quotations that no one has any use for. Maybe I should start dragging a blanket around too.

My Year in Song

In which I compile an eclectic playlist for an eclectic year

As we commence our closing tricks in the death-defying circus act of 2020, let me gift you with a soundtrack to help us carry them off. These picks more or less sum up each thirty-day cluster; some are snapshots of the state of my soul, others are themselves the songs I kept on repeat at the time. Never in my memory has my situation—physical, psychological, financial, etc.—seen such dramatic change on an almost monthly basis, and so I figured I would retrospectively try to make sense of it in the way I know best.

A few of the following reinforce my hunch by appearing on my Spotify Wrapped. All of the following have my endorsement.

January: “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Stealers Wheel

February: “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” Taylor Swift

March: “Everybody Loves Me, Baby,” Don McLean

April: “Adore You,” Harry Styles

May: “Boy Problems,” Carly Rae Jepsen

June: “Mean Girls,” Tiger Goods

July: “Rosa Parks,” OutKast

August: “Quando você chegar,” Novos Baianos

September: “I Concentrate On You,” Frank Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim

October: “Newspaper,” Fiona Apple

November: “All You Wanna Do is Dance,” Billy Joel

December: “200 Du,” Sally Yeh (from the soundtrack to Crazy Rich Asians, the best rom-com I’ve seen in a LONG time)

And oh what the heck—

Album of My Year: Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple

What music has defined your year?

Image: Waidmannslust, Berlin, mid-December. We are still here.

Also, longtime readers will notice we got a sprucing-up! Just another way to leave 2020 in the past.

A Brief History of A Cappella

In which I sing the praises of a much-misconstrued genre

The above image, whose painter I could not identify for the life of me (drop a comment if you can), does not depict the a cappella style we know, as there are instruments present. However, it does depict (again) that musical troublemaker St. Cecilia, plus a cherub who seems happy to jam with her, so it pertains.

Back in high school, I would spend this time of year singing Renaissance madrigals and richly harmonized Christmas carols with the premier choir at my school. The choir’s signature sound, heard throughout the city at traveling carol sing-alongs and its scripted Elizabethan feaste—yes, with an extra E—was a staple of the holiday season and a highlight of the school calendar. To say I remember my three years in the group with joy would be an understatement. Many of our arrangements, especially of the madrigals, are as near and dear to me as if I had sung them yesterday.

I mean…actually I was singing one yesterday. Just to myself. It’s fun to bounce between voice parts.

Concurrently with that teenager’s revelation, America has seen something of a cappella renaissance. A cappella being a genre of unaccompanied music presently associated with glee-club renditions of pop hits. I’ll first point out how the phrase has been bastardized along the way. It is spelled a cappella, two words, from the Italian, meaning “in the style of the chapel.” Let’s get it right.

I bristle out of dedication to two things: the Italian language, and spelling. Now, it’s difficult for people to care about either if they are uneducated in the genre. That, presumptuous as I may be, is where I come in. And before you go calling me too presumptuous, this is also where I tell you that I’ve unearthed my own miseducation: the term as defined in the 1800s, and as I accepted it, turned out to conflate a few styles and has become too popular for the mistake to be corrected. My research is the only thing saving me from myself.

So here we are. How did we get here?

The genre now called a cappella originated—you guessed it—in sacred spaces, with composers adhering to institutional and/or textual rules. Variations appeared in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. At the time it referred to more than simply unaccompanied music: stringed instruments were frequently played in unison with the voices, blending to sound as though the voices were singing alone. But just as frequently the voices were singing alone, so the ambiguity remains. The goal was a minimalistic texture that would direct worshipers’ focus toward the text and praise instead of the performance or performers. Note that Latin was de rigueur for the Christian Church, and they had a lot of sway in those days.

As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, and art got more sophisticated and human-centric, polyphony seeped into the liturgy. A fuller, more colorful sound paired well with the exponentially ornate cathedrals springing up across the continent. The cantatas and oratorios seemed to filter harmony the way stained-glass windows filtered light, and thus further glorify God. By the late seventeenth century, rock stars like George Frideric Händel and my man Johann Sebastian Bach—both of German origin, though Händel would make a name for himself in London—were composing elaborate works for 4+-voice choir. Secular polyphony had also been gaining traction since the 1500s, coming out of Italy, Germany, France, England, and those weird pan-European states like Flanders that no longer exist as such. Crucially, this offshoot allowed for the use of the vernacular. One common form was the madrigal, again derived from the Italian (madrigale, “mother tongue”), whose subject matter covered everything from women gossiping about their husbands to how great Queen Elizabeth I was to a guy watching a swan die (a personal favorite).

But those aforementioned cantatas and oratorios were helping to jumpstart the popularity of keyboard instruments (like the one discussed here) and chamber orchestras, so by the eighteenth century the lone human voice had fallen out of fashion. Cue montage of minuets and sarabandes and gigues. In the mid-nineteenth century a renewed interest in Baroque polyphony—prompted, I suspect, by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn’s championing of Bach’s catalogue—sparked a resurgence of the performance style. It was somewhere around then that a cappella came to be defined as strictly vocal music, to the exclusion of all other instruments; we’ve operated under this definition ever since.

Once the craze crossed an ocean, the momentum was sure to be sustained. The first a cappella choir in the United States was founded at Northwestern University in 1906. Barbershop quartets were becoming a thing, too, alongside the expansion of a uniquely American songbook. The groups and the material progressed in step—to sum up, there were the Four Freshmen, then there were the Beach Boys, and then everyone wanted in on that harmonic density. By the turn of our century, the proliferation of pop music and the co-opting of vocal jazz into academic programs yielded a higher volume of a cappella music than ever before, as well as media representations like Glee and (perhaps even more notably) Pitch Perfect.

To shift gears from narrative into transparent opinion, I don’t care for Pitch Perfect. I saw it well after its debut and was disappointed: neither the humor nor the singing did anything for me, and most of the characters ranged from regressively stereotypical to aggressively unsympathetic. I lacked the heart to admit this to the girls with whom I performed the film’s final mashup at our college’s spring musicale, and otherwise I’ve had no occasion to talk about an uninspiring experience. I find it difficult to draw a through-line from the Elizabeth I groupies to the Jessie J imitators. It doesn’t check out that the endgame of the genre Wikipedia claims “could be as old as man itself” is a group of overgrown students shouting five bars of “Hey Mickey” only to segue into “S&M” by Rihanna. I just…something feels off.

Religion has its problems, as I discover in more unsavory detail with each passing year—this is not to suggest we revert to remixing Tantum ergo for the rest of our unaccompanied musical lives. But anyone who has sung Bach (as, back-door brag, I have) knows his stuff is more than enough to keep you occupied and rehearsing a good long while. For the next phase of a cappella development, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to visualize the sort of thing we might sing in a chapel and run with that.

Of course, my dad would argue similarly against Straight No Chaser, and I love those guys! (At the very least, they’re a crucial addition to the festive season.)

All pith aside, the fact is that the teenager who set her sights on that choir as soon as she set foot in high school didn’t know what a madrigal was. She had heard them sung at concerts and in churches; but the term, however oft dropped in her community, meant nothing to her. Being a bit older and more knowledgeable now, she thought others—maybe even teenagers—could benefit from the knowledge. Here’s hoping they do.

Happy holidays, reader. May they bring you comfort, cheer, non-life-threatening togetherness, and a resilience that you never need to exercise. Così faccio io thanks you and loves you.

Dedicated to Brian Germain. Teachers really do change your life if you let them.

Image: “And this one’s called ‘Only the Good Die Young.’ Haven’t decided who I’m gonna give it to yet.”

Every Beatles Reference in “You’ll Be Back”

In which I send a fully armed battalion to remind you that all you need is love

Hamilton’s George III, our favorite mad king, steps out in the middle of Act I to the most fanfare since, well, Hamilton stepped out. He proceeds to introduce himself with a tune I can only describe as Late-Stage McCartney—late-stage within the Beatles era, anyhow. Lin-Manuel Miranda has confirmed his intention to characterize the king through scattered compositional and instrumental references to the Fab Four. When you listen closely, or really even when you don’t, that intention is clear.

But why exactly does the number sound like a studio outtake from 1967?

Glad you asked.

The bass. Sgt. Pepper is held by many listeners—at least, myself and some like-minded listeners—to contain McCartney’s best bass tones, recorded on his Rickenbacker 4001 and engineered for maximum buoyancy. Coupled with the syncopated lines he wrote into the songs (“With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole”), the effect is that of a rubber ball bouncing deep in the mix. “You’ll Be Back” replicates this technique, sometimes with an electric bass and sometimes with a cello pizzicato. It helps that the time signature swings similarly, a 4/4 with a feel of 2. This, I think, is the element that gets your foot tapping, and by then you’re halfway there.

The harpsichord. Not only is the instrument chronologically appropriate, having been all the rage at 1770s parties, it hearkens back (or forward?) to its famous use on “Fixing a Hole.” And the steady rhythmic 4 it beats out evokes multiple tracks: “Little Help,” “Getting Better,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”—even “Penny Lane,” which was part of the Sgt. Pepper sessions and meant for the album. Had George III dabbled in time travel and jumped a couple centuries, hearing this record would have made him feel oddly at home.

The jazzy piano interjection. The aforementioned harpsichord largely overshadows the piano due to the ‘period’ atmosphere the composer was after, but the old joanna isn’t entirely robbed of its moment. In the bridge, the king’s line “And no, don’t change the subject” is answered by a honky-tonk jangle of keys (a minor-sixth interval, if you insist on knowing). I trace this orchestrational choice back to “Lovely Rita,” whose piano interludes are played by yet another George (Martin). That piano is more prominent than this one, but then Miranda and arranger/musical director Alex Lacamoire spotlight the instrument plenty elsewhere.

The guitar layering. The final chorus gives us our strongest nod: a direct melodic interpolation of the guitar ostinato that begins and ends “Getting Better.” Granted, the repeating G note doubles the tonic (this number is in G major), whereas it doubles the dominant in the Beatles song (which is in C major). Still, the pitch is the same, and you couldn’t tie the tunes any closer together than that. “Getting Better” could well be my personal favorite Sgt. Pepper track—it has a quintessential Beatles sound, impossible to mistake for any other group—so a song or production that pays it homage wouldn’t have to do much more to curry favor with me. Hamilton, of course, goes above and beyond.

All these winks and nudges within the song’s structure culminate in a…Beatleness, an abstract quality comprising concrete quantities. In a show full of un-classic strengths, this number, being its sole representative of “classic” musical theatre, makes a tasteful statement indeed. God save the King.

And hang on—even the title tips its hat! Or, should I say, its crown…

Image: Jonathan Groff originating the role on Broadway