Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to the desk

Eastside Road, August 27, 2017—

Ali A. Rizvi: The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason
New York: St. Martin's Press,
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 226     read 8/24/17

Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 275     read 8/26/17
THE LAST FEW MONTHS have not been the best, as readers of this blog — and particularly the other one — will have suspected. I'm not complaining: plenty of others have it a great deal worse. It's largely a matter, I suppose, of aging: I've just gone past 82.

Nor is it simply a matter of fatigue, lack of stamina, and a chronic backache, serves me right for always suspecting those who announce that complaint of malingering. Nor is it only the political situation, extremely depressing — I am convinced we are on our way to dictatorship, perhaps a new form of it with puppet congress and courts, and publicly owned lands and other goods (museums, libraries, post offices) turned over to private business. Perhaps even the military.

So I've taken a vacation of sorts from the blogs, spending my time on baseball games (only a couple of them live in ball park) and writing. (The last two posts here offered you peeks at the process.) This has occasioned reading through pocket calendars, journals, and reviews from the 1960s and '70s, and the difference between those times and the present has been striking to say the least. To bring me back to the present, two books caught my eye in the last week or two.

Ali Rizvi's The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason was recommended somewhere online, I no longer recall where. (I haven't been keeping up with my usual book review sites: The Nation, NYRB, and so on.) The title promised a good fit to the mood I've been in since the election. Dedicated readers of mine may recall my writing last April about this:

Belief, faith, knowledge : I began this month’s musings planning to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death. Maladjustment of my own cells has made me more than normally aware of mortality. And what have the trams and ruins of Rome brought me to contemplate? Cats and garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years. Gardens and palazzi ; conversations with strangers; public behavior; the embrace of family; a toy boat; a pile of broken pots. The events and detritus of everyday life, in short. Nothing special, but constant reminders that there are things we see and so believe we know, transactions we share and so know we feel, concepts (and constructs) we hear or read about and so strive to understand. And I keep coming back to Montaigne: Que sais-je, What do I know?

Rizvi's book is far from perfect (I am hardly the writer to complain of imperfect books), but I think it is worth reading; perhaps even imperative reading in these times. Born in Pakistan, brought up in Libya and Saudi Arabia before moving with his parents to Canada and the United States, he observed the doctrinaire Muslim culture of Saudi Arabia from a protected position as the son of professionals living in a protected enclave.

This did not prevent his close reading of Quran and hadith, the twin written foundations of Islam. The internal contradictions in those writings, and their uneasy applicability to life in a post-Rationalist world, set him on the course described by his subtitle: a (personal) journey from religion to reason. Rizvi is a physician, hence a scientist; and he holds Islam — and Judaism and Christianity — up to a scientist's skepticism. As I myself think we must all do in these times when the inherently authoritative desert monotheisms seem increasingly at war, figuratively and literally, with contemporary society as it has evolved.

After a couple of hundred pages describing his own growing rejection of Islam, in the course of which Rizvi cites scripture as well as personal experience, he comes to the point: the solution to much of the present war in the Middle East — and the growing problems in the US with radically fundamentalist Christianity, though that's a bit outside the scope of his book — is reformation. He suggests a four-step process: Rejection of scriptural inerrancy, Reformation, Secularism, and Enlightenment.

But even the first step is dauntingly difficult in societies whose very identity — and whose individuals participate in this identity — is bound from birth with a sacred text. Muslims may be fundamentalist, lax, or even (as in Rizvi's case) atheist (or at least agnostic), but they are Muslims because of their common cultural grounding in Quran and hadith. It took Christianity some 1600 years to reach the Enlightenment, and a lot of blood was spilled along the way; there's no reason to think the path will be any easier for Islam.

IT WAS A RELIEF to turn from "faith" and "belief" to cognition — scientifically verifiable examples of memory, invention, and reason. Even if the examples were not from the doings of men and women, religious or not, but those of other primates, of octopodes and dolphins, of elephants and corvids. When I was a boy it was taken as fact that the lower animals were incapable of reason, of language, even of feeling pain. De Waal's book persuades otherwise, relying on his own experience with primates and the work of colleagues and forerunners in this fascinating field.

Much changed in that work over the last few decades, beginning with the suspension of the axiom that we humans are an essentially different and nobler animal than all the others. Observations in the wild (think Goodall) and experimentation in the laboratory revealed, once that prejudice was relinquished, that all animals communicate and many understand, or at least work with, memory, even with the concept of futurity. Such social animals as chimpanzees and bonobos, elephants and whales clearly have evolved language skills and evidence of economic and political methodology.

De Waal is a scientist and does not take up the question of religion. Perhaps this is the one thing that separates us humans from the other animals. I like to think that in this respect they may have evolved beyond us, to a stable point in their own evolution which dispenses with religion. Or perhaps Homo sapiens has evolved to need religion in order to externalize the intrinsic tribalism he shares with certain other apes, to justify irrational action when he knows better. We may hope for another book from de Waal:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart WE are?

Friday, August 18, 2017

from Calls and Singing, for chamber orchestra

1968: from Calls and Singing

Note beginning the pocket calendar for 1968:  

and, later in the calendar,

do string orchestra piece on E, Ab, C: for music for orchestra?

write a piece like a football game. Players come in, go out, carry signals etc.

make a piece which gradually becomes metric — approaches a drive

make a piece with overlapping variable ostinati of various styles

Paul Freeman, a young conductor then directing the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, asked me to write a new piece for a concert that would also feature a work by Heuwell Tircuit, then a music critic (one of three or four!) on the San Francisco Chronicle. (I had met Paul earlier at a master class for conductors led by Richard Lert; I think we televised it.) For some time I couldn’t imagine what I could provide for a small chamber orchestra, lacking trombones, and percussion, until Nelson Green, visiting one day, pointed out that I could provide whatever I wanted to. This broke the mental block and the result, from Calls and Singing, was the second orchestral piece (after my Small Concerto) that I managed to hear played. 

The score bears an epigraph, from Gertrude Stein’s A Sonatina followed by another: “Call to me with frogs and birds and moons and stars. Call me with noises. Mechanical noises.” The score was as much calligraphy as notation, and David Goines lovingly printed it for me in an edition of a number of copies. Paul conducted clock-style; the strings of his orchestra played overlapping washes of melody; woodwinds and brass alternated between conventional sounds and “extended technique” like playing without mouthpieces, or using only the reeds, or playing harmonicas or taxi horns. I thought the result quite beautiful, and so I suppose did Paul, for he  repeated it a few years later with the Detroit Symphony on a special concert, drawing contemptuous reviews from a local critic or two.

from Calls and Singing (the lower-case initial letter is intended, though difficult to force: the idea was to suggest an absent because inexpressible opening) continued the indeterminacy of Nightmusic but added physical separation to the mix. It begins, for example, with the orchestral tuning (an idea from Stockhausen, I think), and much of the time the wind-players are wandering among the audience. It is, though, in general a gentle piece, and everyone seemed to like it, even Heuwell

See the complete 12 pages of score as a pdf here

Monday, August 14, 2017

Getting on with the memoir

A  FEW READERS have responded to the previous post, offering a draft version of the first section of a new memoir, with comments and in some cases welcome corrections or suggestions. Many thanks to them.

Herewith, part two, covering 1967 to 1972, when I was working at KQED while tapering off work at KPFA. This was an intense and interesting time: the 1960s were winding down, and so were freewheeling broadcasting, open-form music and play-for-nothing new music concerts, and the marginal gallery scene. I don’t suppose we knew it at the time, but increased commercialization and the reach to bigger audiences was about to change everything that seemed to interest me, at the same time that our children were growing into their teens and Chez Panisse opened (in 1971), quite changing family dynamics.

Once again I make a DRAFT pdf of this memoir available. It runs to 85 pages, 1.3 MB of data. It is only a draft; more illustrations will be added as well as expansions of descriptions of people and places — and, I hope, responses to your comments and suggestions.

Read and download Part Two HERE
Read and download Part One HERE

And remember: this is not for distribution, only for single-person use; and I may well take the material down after it has served its purpose.

Saturday, August 05, 2017


I HAVE BEEN BUSY writing further in my memoir — "further," because I've already published a volume covering my first thirty years.

Getting There. Ear Press, 2007; 212 pages. Growing up in Berkeley, 1935-1945, and on a hardscrabble farm in Sonoma county, 1945-1952; college in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley; early marriage and children; beginning to learn about Modernism, writing, and the composition of music. ISBN 978-0-6151-5935-5 Available from Lulu 1487909, pb $20 (e-book $9.99, Lulu 18655161, iBookstore), or from such websites as

I've completed a first draft of the next volume, which runs from 1964 on to 1974 — years when I was on staff at KPFA and KQED, when I began teaching at Mills College, and began writing for the Oakland Tribune. This will probably run to 250 pages or so in print, and be subdivided into four main sections:

1: KPFA, 1964-1967
2: KQED, 1967-1972
3: Juggling Jobs, 1972-1974
4: In print, 1974-1976

As I've been working on this I've been struck by what an interesting time those years were, perhaps especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. I write about KPFA and my work there, of course, but also about family life, my musical composition, the musicians and others I got to know — and Berkeley as a backdrop.

But I may be overly enthusiastic. After giving some thought to the idea, I've decided to make the first section available as a pdf on my website. Interested readers can download it by clicking here where it should appear as a PDF running to 76 pages.

I ask that these pages not be printed out, or, if so, not distributed. I welcome any suggestions or corrections. And I reserve the right to take the pdf down from my website as time goes by…

And do let me know if you cannot find or download the pdf.