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New songs for old strings

Posted in Music, War by Alex L. on June 9, 2012

Photo of orchestra is courtesy of Pedro Sánchez via WikipediaJake Runestad is the same age as me (26) and is already making a contribution to society. His new project is described in “Out of War, a Symphony,” an article in the New York Times blog At War. Runestad is composing a three-part piece for orchestra, piano, and chorus hoping to capture the emotional journey that soldiers experience when they go to war and back. He is relying on poetry, memoirs, and interviews with American veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to get a sense of their experiences.

Aside from the social benefit of lifting the veil (if only slightly) for the civilian public about what warfare wreaks on the psyche, Runestad is also helping the cause of classical music. Like other forms of expression which originated many generations ago (including, for that matter, the profession of history) classical music has to confront the stigma of irrelevance. A great way of exhibiting the richness of expression that classical music has to offer is to pair it with the emotional experiences of a new generation. New wine may fare better in new skins, but nothing enlivens the sound of an old instrument like a new song.

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“Song of a Fighter Pilot”

Posted in European, Music, Poetry, War by Alex L. on January 2, 2012

Ace Alexander Pokryshkin and his fellow pilotsVladimir Vysotsky wrote such evocative songs about World War II that it’s impossible to tell that he himself didn’t serve in that conflict. His verse on the theme of friendship is especially amazing.

Because of songs like his and the Russian culture of my upbringing, the symbolism of World War II (or, as the Russians call it, The Great Patriotic War) has stayed with me as a kind of arch-metaphor for the human condition.

I was listening today to one of my favorite songs by Vysotsky called Pesnya lyotchika-istrebitelya: “Song of a Fighter Pilot”. It is one of the greatest poems about friendship that I have ever read, and I decided to translate it into English. My translations skills are limited, but though my version inevitably may have errors, I have done my best to convey both the meaning and the flow of the song. The original, like most Russian poems and songs, has a rhyme scheme.

The song is about two Russian fighter pilots in World War II that find themselves embroiled in a losing battle with a larger German fighter formation. You can listen to the original song on YouTube and read the lyrics in Russian here.

Song of a Fighter Pilot

By Vladimir Vysotsky
(Translated by Alex L.) 

Eight of them and two of us. Our prospects before battle
Aren’t bright, but we’ve committed to the fight.
Seryozha!* Hold on, it’s looking dim,
But we we have to get an edge in the game. (more…)

History off the press (September ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Christianity, Culture, European, Islam, Music by Alex L. on October 21, 2011

New history books, September 2011

Below the fluorescent lights of an auditorium, a professor lectures to students about current historical ideas gleamed from countless of hours of collective research and collegiate debates. A journalist, after decades of reporting on current events in a foreign land, publishes a book about a historical subject she deems particularly important to understanding what is happening there today. A popular film gets released about the past that lights up the public imagination to a certain era of history.

Public recollection of the past happens in many ways. To follow every one of these events, which occur daily, is almost impossible. But patterns emerge from observation, though understanding why they occur is sometimes difficult. In the following previews of new books, I hope to draw attention to trends in the public discourse about history. A more detailed look at the context and causes of these dialogues, though, requires further research.

Fighting to the last

Ever since I first heard the lyrics of Alexander Gorodnitsky’s song “Atlases”, the Siege of Leningrad has become elevated in my mind as an eternal symbol of people’s remarkable ability to endure suffering and emerge victorious. The symbols and metaphors of the song are ingenious. In the famous Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, there are sculptures of Atlas from Greek mythology that act as structural columns for a portico . The Soviet men and women who died to stymie the advance of Nazi warriors before Leningrad are, to Gorodnitsky, like the Atlases of the Hermitage, “up-holding the sky / with arms of stone”. (more…)

Two-year anniversary

Posted in Blogs, Music, Poetry, Stories, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 10, 2011

History, slightly skewedOne way to measure the success of a blog is by how much spam its WordPress filters catch. Somehow, I think the bots that troll the blogosphere know which blogs get more traffic and target their “marketing” strategy at them. The blog that I keep at work, where keywords and headings are meticulously crafted to optimize hits from the search engines, is visited as often as Don Corleone on “this, the day of his daughter’s wedding” in comparison to this, my personal blog. Each day nets dozens of spam comments in my work blog’s filter. HistoryJournal.org, on the other hand, is lucky if the errant male-enhancement ad washes up on shore once or twice a week. I don’t care. Not search-engine-optimizing my <h2> tags on HistoryJournal.org is my rebellion against marketing, my current profession.

(Yes, folks. This is the one day of the year, my blog’s anniversary – it was technically on March 8 – where I blog about blogging. Feel free to turn away. There is not so much a sign of a blog’s decay, writer’s block, or an author’s sickness of the writing craft as when he or she begins to write about what it feels like to be writing. Like a historian writing about what good history should be written like instead of showing you by writing good history himself. Nevertheless, the historiography demons need to be exorcised at least once a year, so I’ll try to keep it as short and sweet as possible.)

An opportunity presented itself to me a year ago after I wrote the post, “History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen”. I had been looking for a way to a way to write about history that would be fresh, interesting, and relevant to the living world. With that post, I hit upon a style or genre which I could develop upon in the future. I desperately wanted to avoid writing history in the dusty forms everyone is so used to, either ringing grandiose notes that always fall flat (“Since the dawn of man…”  or, “Our world would not be the same if it were not for…”) or delving into minutiae that interests nobody but the collector of such informational tidbits (“On this day in history…”). The style that I have tried to work on this past year (in between peddling my marketing skills, chasing various pet hobbies, and staving off spirit-sapping ennui which has been waging war against me since 2007) has been to present history in an extremely personal narrative. (more…)

On hearing the music

Posted in Music, Stories by Alex L. on July 21, 2010

A few weeks ago, after a long hiatus, I decided to play the guitar. I own a Yamaha classical, and it had been waiting many months in my family room on a cherry-wood holder. Any musical instrument one plays is refreshing to return to again, but the classical guitar is perhaps the most pleasant.

The piano, which also resides in the family room, likes to hide its vital parts and will greet you with a rasp and squeak as you slide open its wooden key cover. The alto saxophone, sharing a corner by the window of the same room with a tall leafy houseplant, must be assembled into a whole with grease to make the parts fit and water to soften up the wooden sliver of the reed. The latest member of the Family Room Ensemble is an Arabic drum, and while it is a cheerful companion, its boisterous rhythms sound almost sad without a party of dancers to accompany them.

The classical guitar, though, sits always upright on its stand, its face looking at you, ready to be played. When you pick up the guitar, you touch its gentlest part, the lacquered backside of the neck, opposite the strings, which feels like a polished marble statue, but warmer. A sweet scent wafts from the same opening in the instrument that projects its sound, like a perfume of the forest. The sound of its strings is soft and unassuming.

And yet despite its welcoming appearance, the classical guitar is a difficult instrument to play well. I had abandoned it out of frustration late last year, when after months of daily practice (not to mention the years of private lessons I took before college) I was still producing the same dull and mechanical sound from the instrument. Music is more than about getting the notes right, I told myself, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

(more…)

Love and apocalypse in current pop culture

Posted in American, Culture, Film, Music by Alex L. on February 25, 2010

Hollywood has popularized the idea that romantic love is salvific, that all of one’s problems in life will be resolved by finding “the one true love”. Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after. Unlike old European fairy tales, there is no heroic quest (such as slaying monsters or the like) for the boy to endure before he gets – chauvinistically – the girl as a prize. In a typical Hollywood narrative (gross exaggeration intended), getting the girl is the quest.

In the past decade or so, there have been some works of art that have challenged this traditional Hollywood love story. In fact, they downright portray the opposite: romantic love not as salvific but as apocalyptic. The film Fight Club, with its fascist and destructive undertones, is also surprisingly a love story. The narrator, played by Ed Norton, claims in the opening scene that “the guns, the bombs, the revolution all have something to do with a girl named Marla”.

In music, the young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s song, Temptation of Adam, echoes similar themes to Fight Club. The song is an allegory of romantic love compared to both the fall of Adam in the Bible and the nuclear apocalypse of the Cold War. The song ends with these words, which interlace imagery and symbolism from all of those themes: “So I think about the Big One: W-W-I-I-I / Would we ever really cared the world had ended? / And you could hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight, / I think about that big red button, and I’m tempted.”

Are these works of art in current pop culture a reaction against the sugary Hollywood love story? And yet the two works mentioned above are not purely apocalyptic; one could argue that they have equally hopeful themes apart from the destruction portrayed in them (a contemporary example where destruction is indulged in for its own sake is the song “Aenema” by the band Tool). Perhaps this theme of ‘romantic love as apocalypse’ has always run parallel to ‘romantic love as salvation’ in American pop culture. I haven’t looked into it too much, but it does make for interesting works of art.